Artists Who Died Before 30: Francesca Woodman
Fine Art Photographer
Artists are memory makers… or rather, memory keepers. What we do is immortalize a time, an era, a community, a person in a portrait. It is why we are still fascinated with a little known lady captured in the Mona Lisa. It is why an era that lasted a little more than 11 years and dancers who only danced 2 years at best, are immortalized forever in the posters of the Moulin Rouge by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec. It is why the era of this artist will be forever remembered. This is a story of an artist who didn’t live long but left an indelible mark and influence for the future generations of Fine Art Photographers.
It’s so sad when anyone dies young, but doubly so for artists, because there is so much more they could have done to make the world a more beautiful, colorful place. The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. Sometimes I envy people like my mother, who have a very “even keel.” People like that seldom get mad or upset (although when they do, look out). However, they also don’t get overly jovial or jocular. Every day is a straight line from sunrise to sunset.
Gratefully, I don’t live like that. I am one of the artists. When I am happy, I am a very ecstatic, giggling fool. And when I’m sad, I am in the dismal dumps. No halfway for me. I feel it all and it often shows up in my work.
That’s what happened to most of these artists who died young. They felt too deeply the pain of life. And some just succumbed to sickness, sadness, and drug addiction before their work was done. This is the story of the extra short life of Francesca Woodman ( 1958-1981).
“Am I in the picture? Am I getting in or out of it? I could be a ghost, an animal or a dead body, not just this girl standing on the corner…?”— Francesca Woodman
Francesca Woodman was a young surrealist photographer who captured her self-portrait as a female body trapped in domestic space. Her photography combines a childlike airiness, (or is it ghostlike?) with an undeniable feeling of darkness. She committed suicide at 22 years old by leaping out a window.
She was born in Boulder, Colorado to artist parents, so she was surrounded with art from an early age, even getting to spend time with them in Italy. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975, spent 1977 and 1978 studying in Rome in the Rhode Island School of Design honors program. Then she went back to Rhode Island to graduate in 1978. She was trying to break into fashion photography in New York City but her solicitations did not lead anywhere. This is when she became depressed because of her constant failure to land a job and a broken relationship with her boyfriend.
After surviving one suicide attempt, she lived with her parents in Manhattan, getting therapy and seemed to be doing better. That’s when they let their “guard down.” She killed herself by throwing herself from a loft window in New York City at the age of 22. Her father felt the suicide was due to her recent rejection for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
I know how rejection feels. It is very crushing when all you want is enough to survive and create more art. Rejection must be one of the hardest things for an artist, who naturally feels things deeply, to endure and overcome. By the very nature of what we do, we are set up for rejection. Yet this is the very thing that often fuels our desire to do better and “show them” for the next time. Unfortunately, Francesca didn’t make it to that place.
“I was inventing a Language for people to see…” (last journal entry. January 19, 1981)— Francesca Woodman
Do you like photography as art?
Surreal and Haunting
The work of Francesca Woodman is so stark and poignant that it makes you confront things about yourself that you may not know were there. Art can be easily dismissed, saying “I don’t get it,” or “that doesn’t make sense,” but photography is different in that it captures what is really there, yet can still have a message. I think the way Francesca captured women locked in the walls of a home, crushed by the front door and cowering in the corner, says a lot about how we women think of the “housewife.” We embrace it because that’s what we are supposed to do, but we always seem to find a way to rebel against it at the same time. We get a job, or find things to do outside the home, got to college, etc. But when Francesca was taking her surreal photographs, those methods may have been out there but the ghost of the “housewife” lives on.
“Real things don’t frighten me just the ones in my mind do.”— Francesca Woodman
I am sorry that this biography of the Woodman family has Portuguese subtitles but it is so good and complete a story of the whole family that it is worth overlooking the subtitles. It is, however, over an hour long. So take time to see it when you can sit back with a cup of tea and enjoy the art. Be forewarned, there is nudity in the video because of the candid shots of Francesca working some of her photographs in the nude.
“I finally managed to try to do away with myself, as neatly and concisely as possible…. I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with you, and some other artifacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.”— Francesca Woodman
Original In Her Style
She chooses black and white photography because there is something really artistic about black and white. It eliminates peripherals and focuses on the light and shadow. Her work has no real progenitor. It seems to have just jumped into her head and she did it as she imagined it. Many artists can claim influence from one artist or someone else’s technique but she doesn’t seem to have that. She uses long exposure times and moved to deny her face to the camera and therefore be “any woman” in many of her poses. Many seem ghostly, a specter of the home, the eternal housewife-witch, or the liberated psyche in flight. In one series she seems to be locked in a Looking Glass much like Alice in Wonderland. I love this concept because I just love children’s books, children’s stories and spoofs on them. There are many things you could see in these photos if you let yourself stare into them long enough.
Influenced Brook Shaden
Francesca Woodman has been a profound influence on people going into Fine Art Photography since, like my favorite photographer Brooke Shaden. You can obviously see the Woodman influence in her work. Even though Brooke uses color, it is usually desaturated and muted with sepia. Brooke has the benefit of being able to use Adobe Photoshop to further manipulate the images she takes where Woodman didn’t have that tool in the ’80s. Her work doesn’t look obviously manipulated or “photoshopped” though like many photographers’ work does. I think that is why I admire it so much. It is truly fantasy Fine Art.
Does Death Bring Fame?
The question is, Would Francesca Woodman’s work have been as well received and admired today if she had not tragically thrown herself from a window at 22, and lived on to do more and explore more in her medium? Are artists revered because they are dead or because they are good? Who knows? Both maybe.
Artist's Stories Are Compelling
I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the mark in history that some of them have made. Many times it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who show no more talent than some others who did not achieve fame did, however, it is a lot of chance, happenstance and who you know more than talent most of the time. In Francesca’s case, her tragedy was one of the factors that propelled attention in her art, as well as the grieving family she left behind.