Francesca Woodman was a photographer best known for her work which explores issues of gender representation and the female body, often portraying dark psychological states and disturbing scenes. Many of her photographs are shot in decaying buildings and feature her nude body or those of other models who are often indistinguishable from her own. Woodman’s portraits and self-portraits are far from conventional as she is regularly concealed or partially hidden behind objects. She has frequently used long exposures to blurs movement or merge the figures in her images with their surroundings to create a ghostly presence. This unconventional approach adds to the impression that she is trying to hide or disappear. When exhibited, the small and intimate format of Woodman’s photographs emphasize an underlying fragility.
‘It’s difficult not to read Woodman’s many self-portraits – she produced over five hundred during her short lifetime – as alluding to a troubled state of mind. She committed suicide at the age of twenty-two.’ (Bright, 2010, p5)
The course text asks what evidence can you find for Bright’s analysis?
I believe that Francesca Woodman’s age and the nature of her tragic and dramatic death contribute greatly to the interpretation of her work. A reading of Woodman’s work with little background information other than the facts surrounding her death, allows me to accept Bright’s analysis as fair.
Woodman’s friends and parents testify to Francesca’s happy nature, as well as her passion, focus and ambition towards her photography. An overturned flour truck inspired Francesca to carry out a project which resulted in her creating a black trace of her body in an otherwise flour covered room. On a recording of the project, Woodman’s enthusiasm and satisfaction with the result can be clearly heard in her voice when she declares, ‘Oh I’m really pleased’. Photographs taken as part of this project, which are in keeping with the themes consistent across Woodman’s work, seem to support the view held by her family and friends, that the work she created was by no means a reflection of her state of mind. Betty Woodman states that ‘people look at her work and see it’s about absence and it’s somehow painful. She had this idea, and got all this flour, and she did it and it worked, and she’s thrilled, she’s pleased and that’s Francesca. It’s not about loss, it’s about, look what I did, that’s what art making is about, as far as I’m concerned.’
Francesca is known to have said that the reason for her recurring appearance within the frame was a matter of ‘convenience’, she was always available and it was far easier to direct herself than a model. The majority of Woodman’s work was made between 1972 and 1980, ‘the happy years’ as described by her friend Betsy Berne. Francesca’s parents describe the first signs of depression beginning in September 1980. After a suicide attempt, Francesca began to see a therapist, and her family and friends were on a constant state of alert and lived in fear for her safety. On 19th January the following year Francesca Woodman succeeded in taking her own life.
Bright’s analysis of Woodman’s work, while fair, is loaded and invites the reader to go in search of further information. Taking that invitation has been worthwhile. Although I had previously seen some of Woodman’s photographs, prior to my research I had not be aware of how influential her work has been, particularly to fashion photography. It was also nice to discover that Woodman led, for the most part, a happy life and that the dark and disturbing scenes which often appear in her work, were the product of enthusiasm, focus and conscience thought, rather than an insight into a disturbed and tortured mind.
Elina Brotherus is a photographer who’s practice is rooted in documentary tradition. She has become known for documenting herself and her experiences honestly while laying bare her vulnerabilities. Brotherus says her photographs have ‘always been taken when something was actually happening, I haven’t reconstructed situations after the event. I made Wedding Portraits (1997), when I got married, Divorce Portrait (1998), when I got divorced, and I hate sex (1998), when I felt that way. So I wasn’t showing various women’s’ roles in Shermanesque fashion, but living my life and trying to capture something genuine and real about it in the pictures’. Recognising a decisive moment and developing the ability to react and capture it became crucial to Brotherus’s practice. ‘The camera had to be easily accessible, often I already had it ready on a tripod in the corner of the room. I did make my pictures for the camera too, but the more unforced the photographing became, the more the presence of the camera could be ignored.’
In her series, Annunciation, Brotherus documented her personal journey as she underwent five years of IVF treatment which eventually proved unsuccessful. The title, Annunciation directly refers to the Christian celebration of the announcement by the angle Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the son of God. Brotherus’s composition frequently references art history and the work of classical painters. Annunciation is no exception as Brotherus modernizes and reinterprets classic works as well the meaning of the Annunciation itself. Brotherus has intend the series to give ‘visibility to those whose treatment leads nowhere. The hopeless story with an unhappy end is the story of the majority. My way of discussing the matter is to give out the pictures, not to give an interview. I’m not sure if I will be able to actually speak about this. I’m still too sad. This is the saddest thing that has happened to me since my mother’s death’.
Elina Brotherus has, through her series Model Studies, attempted to shift the focus away from her personal life and investigate the role of the artist gaze and observations in self-portraiture. With the series, Artists at Work, she has taken this observational exploration further as she collaborates with two painters. She poses for them, while at the same time photographs the entire process. In this series she is both artist and model, while the painters are also both artist and model. ‘Who’s watching who? who gets the last gaze?’, is the question Brotherus explores through the series.
OCA student Peter Mansell, who’s work was examined in part two of this course, says that he found that the process of creation often saw him through pain and anguish, with the end result acting as a visual statement about his existence and experience, objectifying it and allowing him an emotional release. I was very interested to discover that similarly, Elina Brotherus found that the camera has managed to console her in difficult times, ‘I have actually noticed that I reached for the camera more readily when I was unhappy. I worked the pain into a beautiful object that could be looked at detached from myself, and this consoled me a little’.
Gillian Wearing uses both photography and video to explore issues of identity and human relationships. In the series, Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1992-93), Wearing collaborates with members of the public as she stopped passers-by, asking them to write down, what was on their mind. She then photographed them holding their written statement. It’s interesting to note how Wearing was able to gain people’s trust to the extent that they were willing to offer a complete stranger honest and often very intimate thought.
Wearing has occasionally tried to break down stereotypes of people on the fringes of society. In Take Your Top Off (1993), she explores the vulnerability of transsexuals through a series of colour images. She sits in bed beside people at various stages of transsexual transformation, both with their breasts exposed. ‘A great deal of my work is about questioning handed-down truths… I’m always trying to find ways of discovering new things about people, and so in the process discover more about myself.’
In her series, Album (2003), Wearing collaborated with a team (some of whom have worked on Madame Tussaud’s wax works) to create masks, wigs, and a body suit of her own family members to recreate several family snapshot with herself behind the masks. Each mask took approximately six months to make with each costing in excess of £11,000. At fist glance there doesn’t appear to be anything significant about the portraits. However, a closer inspection, particularly of her own portrait at three years of age, reveals a far greater story behind the eyes than that of a three year old child. The use of a mask here serves as a devise to reveal, more so than to conceal. Wearing considers her series of images to be more self-portraits than portrait. ‘I was interested in the idea of being genetically connected to someone but being very different. There is something of me, literally, in all those people—we are connected, but we are each very different.’ The series questions Wearing’s role within her family, her identity and development as a person, and indeed it also raises questions regarding the use of photography as a truthful medium.
Bright, S. (2010) Auto Focus: the Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography, London: Thames and Hudson.
Brotherus, E. (2015) Elina Brotherus [online], available: http://www.elinabrotherus.com/news/ [accessed: 4 Sept 2015].
Brotherus, E. (2013) ‘Elina Brotherus – Annunciation’, Slash/Paris [online], available: http://slash-paris.com/en/evenements/elina-brotherus-annonciation [accessed 4 Sept 2015].
Cooke, R. (2014) ‘Searching for the real Francesca Woodman’, The Guardian, 31 Aug, available: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/31/searching-for-the-real-francesca-woodman [accesed 2 Sept 2015].
Guggenheim Museum (2012) ‘Through the Lens of Francesca Woodman’, Art in the 1070’s
, available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM3uBw5_voY [accessed 2 Sept 2015].
Kaili, J. (2002) ‘The enchantment of Reality ‘, Decisive Days, available: http://www.elinabrotherus.com/assets/pdf/interviews/kaila_enhancement_01.pdf [accessed 4 Sept 2015].
Louisiana Channel (2013) ‘Elina Brotherus: The Human Perspective’ , available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRX9up0MKqU [accessed 4 Sept 2015].
Maureen Paley Gallery (2015) Gillian Wearing [online], available: http://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/gillian-wearing [accessed 5 Sept 2015].
Sooke, A. (2012) ‘Gillian Wearing: Everyone’s got a secret’, The Telegraph, 28 Mar, available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/9149522/Gillian-Wearing-Everyones-got-a-secret.html [accessed 5 Sept 2015].
Tate (2015) Francesca Woodman 1958-1981 [online], available: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512 [accessed 2 Sept 2015].
Tate (2015) Gillian Wearing [online], available: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/search?q=gillian+wearing [accessed 5 Sept 2015].
Wearing, G. (2012) ‘Gillian Wearing Takeover:Behind the mask-the Self-Portraits’, The Guardian, 27 Mar, available: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/mar/27/gillian-wearing-takeover-mask [accessed 5 Sept 2015].
Willis C.S. (2010) The Woodmans [dvd], New York: Lorber Films.
Yeh, D. (2003) ‘Painting by Camerawork’, Culturebase.net [online], available: http://www.culturebase.net/artist.php?735 [accessed 4 Sept 2015].