TFPI.02 - Art History With Camilla

Often the most talented artists are said to be imbued with tragedy, suffering and tragic endings. The artist Van Gogh famously cut off his own ear, the writer Virginia Woolf drowned herself in a river and various musicians lost their lives at the age of merely twenty-seven. Art and tragedy, creative practice and suffering, have often gone hand in hand to produce some of the most beautiful and evocative artwork. The same can be said for photographer Francesca Woodman. In 1981, Woodman sadly killed herself at the age of twenty-two, leaving behind a vast body of work. Despite her regrettably short life, Woodman left behind a legacy; a beautiful body of self-portraits which both document and give insight into the instinctive creative being that she was.

Daughter of painter George and ceramicist Betty Woodman; Francesca Woodman was brought up in a creative environment and taught to nurture her talent and interests from an early age. Surrealism [1] had always been a core interest of hers and its influence grew steadily with the development of her practice. Her photographs were mostly taken using a medium-format camera, which produces a square negative. Unlike many fellow photographers working at the time, Woodman printed her own photographs, considering the production to be equally as important as the staging of the shots. Through photographic manipulation, which at times included burning or handwritten scrawls across the bottom, Woodman produced totally unique prints.


She studied at The Rhode Island School of Design between the years 1975-78, during which time her tutors could see she was leaps and bounds ahead of other students and therefore graduated a year early. In her final year, she studied abroad in Rome. This was a transformative period for Woodman as she not only integrated in amongst young Italian artists, but she also had access to local bookstores in which Surrealist texts could be bought. This saw the movement’s influence growing steadily across her photographs.

Woodman’s self-portraits are raw, eerie and imbued with a contemplative atmosphere. Mostly shot in monochrome and rarely colour, the black and white adds to the sense of foreboding present throughout her work. Woodman often sought out derelict buildings as her photographic spaces, blending herself into the fading wallpapers and dark corners of the rooms. Highly experimental with her poses, she sought to disappear into the photograph; blend seamlessly into the composition. ‘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 in the corner...?’

She rarely photographed or was photographed by others, preferring instead to work in isolation; employing a pose-to camera tripod working method in the neglected spaces. Inhabiting these tattered places, with cracks down the wall and the cold seeping in, Woodman set to work with intensity and commitment which saw the occurrence of a vast amount of visual experimentation.

Space and movement were core themes to her photographic experiments. As well as capturing herself obscured by shadows and peeling wallpaper, Woodman often photographed herself in gliding movement, resulting in eerie blurring of the body and the face. Through this use of movement, she maps out a space which is both imaginary and constructed. In many photos, she remains entirely blurred, whilst the environment she inhabits comes out in perfect focus. Could these moments signify an internal wish for disappearance? Her writings often refer to this, with notes such as ‘I finally managed to do away with myself, as neatly and concisely as possible…’. Although most likely referring to the photographs themselves, her artistic oeuvre would suggest that there was an underlying internal wish for vanishing completely – perhaps from life itself. This is particularly evident in her blurring and obstruction of her face. The face is the component through which people are identified; yet her concealment of it suggests a reluctance to be recognised.

Throughout her work, Woodman employed props such as snakes, fur, mirrors, lace, skulls and clothing; all of which demonstrate a hint of Surrealist influence. A strong recurring theme throughout her work was the use of the mirror, which she utilised not only to reflect herself, but the dark empty spaces she inhabited and photographed. Isolation and solitude therefore resonate throughout her photographs; emphasised by the fleeting way in which she captures of herself

Not only did Woodman experiment with notions of identity within her photographs, but she also defied conventional representations of the female body. Although she photographed herself either full or partially nude, the sexual potential of the photograph is overwritten by the presentation of her compositions. She often manipulated the body, contorting skin and pressing it up against surfaces, or pinching it into place using props. Despite the serious atmosphere of most of her work, through the creation of her compositions an element of playfulness is also present. She made her body entirely malleable, often hoisting herself up to hang from doorframes, balance precariously on chairs, peep out from behind a curtain or piece of fabric; almost as if she was playing a game of hide and seek with herself and the camera. A child, alone and hiding in an empty abandoned space.


Alongside this, she often remains somewhat hidden in the portraits; only partially revealed, creating an air of entrapment. This is particularly evident in works such as ‘Space 2’, in which she has physically trapped herself in an abandoned glass display case. Shadows, darkness and obscurity were creative tools she consistently employed, making for a distinctive and melancholic photographic style.


Woodman is often referred to as the Sylvia Plath of photography. Although the work stands for itself in terms of being surreal, beautiful and wholesome in its compositions, it is impossible not to read it through the lens of depression and isolation. However, through photography Woodman found both herself and release; the photographs giving her a voice which aided her navigation of life.



[1] Surrealism – a twentieth-century artistic movement in which artwork sought to represent and unleash images from dreams and the unconscious 


An exhibition of Francesca Woodman’s work is currently running at Tate Liverpool until 23rd September. For more details: