Francesca Woodman | Gagosian, New York City

BY Lucy McKeon, May 1, 2024

The porous boundaries between the self and the surrounding world was Francesca Woodman’s subject. In her “ghost pictures,” perhaps her best-known works, she and other young women her age, often nude, faces frequently obscured, appear blurred by movement in abandoned and derelict yet romantic spaces – pristine figures against the backdrop of dilapidation. The bodies become the backdrop, the borders between them smudged. Woodman had produced 800 images by the time she killed herself in 1981, at the age of 22, by jumping from the roof of a building on New York’s East Side.

That so many have looked on Woodman’s life and work through the blunt lens of her death may be a disservice to her art; but perhaps her end, too, reveals something, not everything, about how the artist lived and saw. Gagosian’s first exhibition of photographs by Woodman, on view earlier this spring and featuring more than 50 prints, is a testament to the photographer’s preoccupation with time and space, the relationship between bodies and the built environment, and her perception of the insecure veil between worlds. “I used to think a great deal on whether I liked an image because of its impressiveness. I confuse everything for myself,” she wrote in her diary, featured along in The Woodmans (2010), a documentary that explores her artist parents’ relationship to their daughter’s life and work. (Another film about Woodman, My First Brush With Infinity, is currently in development.)

Long exposures capture the passage of time. Before her death, Woodman also began to experiment with a long development process to produce prints. She increasingly attuned this physical attention to time to understand the relation between person and place. Woodman wrote in her diary: “I’m interested in the way that people relate to space. The best way to do this is to depict their interactions to the boundaries of these spaces. Started doing this with [ghost] pictures, people fading into a flat plane – ie becoming the wall under wallpaper or of an extension of the wall onto floor.” Last year, MACK published Francesca Woodman: The Artist’s Books, which reprints Some Disordered Interior Geometries, originally published just before Woodman’s death, as well as every single page of seven other artist books she kept – a boundaryless approach to image-making that includes Woodman’s words, multimedia works, and found text, as well as sketches and diagrams. I loved seeing her handwriting in her books and brief captions below some of the prints at Gagosian: the sturdy “A”s in “Francesca,” her angled “r”s, sail-like “d”s.”

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, ca. 1977-78. ©Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian and The Woodman Family Foundation

For the first time since 1980, when it was included in Beyond Photography 80, a group exhibition at the Alternative Museum in New York, Blueprint for a Temple (II) was displayed, a monument of a collage assembled from 24 diazotype elements and four gelatin-silver prints. Woodman worked at large scale for these prints, using the diazotype process, typically used for architectural blueprints. Classical iconography – life-size caryatids or female figures who form architectural columns, draped in sheets, wavelike mosaics – takes inspiration from antiquity, while the diazotype blue recalls the azure of cyanotypes in early photographic developing. Woodman used classically inspired contemporary bathrooms as her staging ground, “a modern day counterpart,” she wrote in an inscription that appears at the work’s lower right, to the temples of Ancient Greece. Her complementary Caryatid photographs, also printed large scale in diazotype and sepia, show time-traveling goddesses of transience wandering from the temple. 

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, ca. 1977-78. ©Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Copyright The Artist. Courtesy Gagosian and The Woodman Family Foundation

Concurrent with Gagosian’s show is an exhibition on view through June 16 at London’s National Portrait Gallery featuring Woodman’s photographs alongside those of Julia Margaret Cameron. Working at opposite ends of a century, the artists shared formal qualities and interests, including a soft focus and an aesthetic steeped in myth. And yet the Victorian belief, dominant in Cameron’s work, that the internal was reflected externally (inner beauty externalized) is critiqued by Woodman: fragmentation of composition, blurring of focus, the insistence on ephemerality, all of this not only refuses revelation through photography, but resists the very notion of a stable inner truth. In one of her better-known images, a nude Woodman on hands and knees in a dark concrete space snakes around a broken mirror to meet her own haunted gaze: half-human, the camera embodied.