Francesca Stern Woodman
Front of dust jacket of 2011 book Francesca Woodman
Born (1958-04-03)April 3, 1958
Denver, Colorado, U.S.
Died January 19, 1981(1981-01-19) (aged 22)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Cause of death Suicide
Nationality American
Education Boulder High School
Alma mater Rhode Island School of Design
Occupation Photographer

Francesca Stern Woodman (April 3, 1958 – January 19, 1981) was an American photographer best known for her black and white pictures featuring either herself or female models. Many of her photographs show young women who are nude, blurred (due to movement and long exposure times), merging with their surroundings, or whose faces are obscured. Her work continues to be the subject of much critical acclaim and attention, years after she died by suicide at the age of 22, in 1981.[1][2][3][4][5]



Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado[6] to artists George Woodman and Betty Woodman (Abrahams).[7][8] Her mother is Jewish and her father is from a Protestant background.[9] Her older brother, Charles, later became an associate professor of electronic art.[10]

Woodman attended public school in Boulder, Colorado, between 1963 and 1971, except for second grade, which she attended in Italy, where the family spent many summers between school years. She began high school in 1972 at Abbot Academy, a private Massachusetts boarding school. There, she began to develop her photographic skills and became interested in the art form. Abbot Academy merged with Phillips Academy in 1973; Woodman graduated from the public Boulder High School in 1975. Through 1975, she spent summers with her family in Italy[11][8] in the Florentine countryside, where the family lived on an old farm.[citation needed]

Beginning in 1975, Woodman attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, Rhode Island. She studied in Rome between 1977 and 1978 in a RISD honors program. Because she spoke fluent Italian, she was able to befriend Italian intellectuals and artists.[12] She returned to Rhode Island in late 1978 to graduate from RISD.[11][8]

Woodman moved to New York City in 1979. After spending the summer of 1979 in Stanwood, Washington whilst visiting her boyfriend at Pilchuck Glass School, she returned to New York "to make a career in photography." She sent portfolios of her work to fashion photographers, but "her solicitations did not lead anywhere".[13] In the summer of 1980, she was an artist-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.[13][8]

In late 1980, Woodman became depressed due to the failure of her work to attract attention and to a broken relationship.[14] She survived a suicide attempt in the autumn of 1980, after which she lived with her parents in Manhattan.[15]

On January 19, 1981, Woodman died by suicide, jumping out of a loft window of a building on the East Side of New York.[13][8] An acquaintance wrote, "things had been bad, there had been therapy, things had gotten better, guard had been let down".[16] Her father has suggested that Woodman's suicide was related to an unsuccessful application for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.[17]


Photographs, 1972–1980Edit

Although Woodman used different cameras and film formats during her career, most of her photographs were taken with medium format cameras producing 2-1/4 by 2-1/4 inch (6x6 cm) square negatives.[18][19] Woodman created at least 10,000 negatives, which her parents now keep.[20] Woodman's estate, which is managed by Woodman's parents and represented by Victoria Miro, London and Marian Goodman, New York,[21] consists of over 800 prints,[8] of which only around 120 images had been published or exhibited as of 2006.[22] Most of Woodman's prints are 8 by 10 inches (20 by 25 cm) or smaller, which "works to produce an intimate experience between viewer and photograph".[23]

Many of Woodman's images are untitled and are known only by a location and date. The table below contains information on some of Woodman's most famous photographs. For each photograph, the location, the date, the title and a brief description are given (since multiple images may share the same location, date, and title, and a single image may be assigned multiple locations, dates and titles). The columns on the right contain links to up to four reproductions of the photograph found on the Web, and page numbers of reproductions in five major books.[citation needed]

Date Title Description Page Numbers of Reproductions in Books
Gabhart[24] Lux[25] Chandes[26] Townsend[27] Keller[28]
Boulder, Colorado, U.S.
1972 Self-portrait at thirteen "…She denies her face to the camera, so that we can only see her hair, but her left hand is holding a [shutter-release] cable linked to the camera."[29] 43 75 171
Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.
1975–1976 [untitled] Woodman "appears as Alice, in a Victorian-looking dress. She looks directly into the camera and gestures oddly with her hands and arms toward a door ajar…."[30] 63 33 54 137 52
1975–1976 [untitled] "She kneels on a heavily framed mirror placed flat on the floor. Her head and upper body are in motion...."[30] 34 80 69 115
1975–1976 Space2 Woodman "physically encased herself in a museum vitrine... We see Woodman's left breast and thigh pressed against the glass as she squats. ... Her head, moreover, appears cut from her torso... While her right hand exerts pressure against the vitrine, her left seems to caress the form."[31] 42 73 72 118 21
1975–1976 Space2 Blurry figure at left of frame reaching down, generally in plane of photograph. 75 120 186
1975–1976 Space2 "Blurred image of a woman shaking her head."[32] 76 121 210
1975–1978 [untitled] "...A woman apparently dead at the lip of the ocean, reflected in the mirror of another woman whose own face is displaced by that very mirror."[33] 66 49
1976 [untitled] Three nude women, "including Woodman, holding photographs of Woodman's face in front of their own, with a fourth portrait taped to the wall."[34] 67 51 101 25
1976 [untitled] Woodman "sits on the edge of a white chair, wearing only a pair of black shoes. She is seen from the waist down, and before her on the floor is a shadowgraph, the negative impression her prone body has made in white powder."[30] 81 85 97 206
1976 [untitled] "An empty room and a detached door balancing precariously against a wall."[35] 55 106
1976 Horizontale "Woodman photographed herself cropped at the waist, her legs sprawling across the frame…. Bound tightly by shiny tape tied at the ankle, her flesh bulges around the ligatures, whilst with her right hand she holds a woolen glove over her sex."[36] 46 92 88 133 23
1976 House #3 "...A window lights a dark room. Woodman, huddled on the floor and smudged nearly out of existence, save for a poised, shod foot, fades away into the dark, decaying room."[37] 33 53 58 107 12
1976 House #4 "...She squeezes into a small triangular space formed by a fireplace surround which has come away from the wall, her legs splayed and her upper body blurred in movement…."[38] 33 52 59 107 11
1976 Then at one point I did not need to translate the notes; they went directly to my hands "...Her nude figure crouched and bowing before a scarred wall, with a torn sheet of wallpaper covering her back like a shell, and her hands caressing the wall like a keyboard...."[39] 33 54 60 113 61
1976 March Sloan "Sloan appears as the artist’s doppelganger: reaching for a bright, sun-like orb painted on the wall of a snowcovered street…."[40] 45 78 143 49
1976 November Polka Dots "A young woman crouches in a crumbling interior... She is wearing a polka dotted dress, but the side zipper on the bodice is open and the bottom of her breast peeks out from under the hand that is tucked into her armpit. ... Directly above her head is a hole, registering on film as a black circle…."[41] 103 168
1976–1977 Polka Dots #5 Woodman, wearing a polka-dotted dress, bends to her right, back to a wall. 47 52 102 34
1977 From Space2 series "…Her legs, arm and belly – which is all that we see of her – are naked. She seems to be emerging from the wall, tearing the flowered wallpaper into large, uneven pieces as she achieves embodiment."[42] 33 55 61 109 10
1977 I could no longer play / I could not play by instinct "…Self-portrait shows her dressed in a black brocade gown opened to reveal one breast. The upper edge of the frame cuts off her head at the chin…. From her right hand dangles a small knife… and from a cut under the line of her breast emerges a strip of photo-booth self-portraits, spattered with real or simulated blood."[30] 15 76 84 141 58
1977 Spring On being an angel "…She flings her arms back at the camera, so that her upturned breasts and open mouth, screaming in fright or celebration, – present an image of the liberated psyche in flight."[43] 49 79 82 125 38
1977 Spring On being an angel #1 At the upper part of a mostly-dark frame, Woodman looks straight at the viewer, but her topless body is seemingly tilted up behind her head, as though she were flying upward toward the camera. 77 83 124 39
Rome, 1977 September From Angel Series "In what looks like an attic in another old house, suspended white fabric looks like wings. Woodman jumps in front of the wings, dressed in a Victorian-style white petticoat with black tights. Her blurred body… picks up on the wing-like drapery of the hanging fabric and makes us imagine her flying away."[32] 101 152
Rome, 1977 September From Angel Series "A gloved hand holds a delicate, diaphanous piece of white fabric and shakes it. Its blur indicates that were the arm to drop it, the fabric might defy gravity and fly."[32] 40 78 100 153
Rome, 1977–1978 From Angel Series "…She stands, with only her parted bare legs showing, with her feet planted at the ends of two roughly dug trenches, which reflect the legs…."[42] 43 103 159 75
Rome, 1977–1978 From Angel Series "Sloan appears as the artist’s doppelganger... as an angelic figure hanging from the doorway of a Roman palazzo"[40] 27 174 212
Rome, 1977–1978 Yet another leaden sky "She is pressing herself against a wall, a maleficent silhouette… her face covered with a white circle, while a tortoise crawls forward in a corner."[44] 20 147
Rome, 1977–1978 [untitled] "...She has flattened herself, nude, against a wall, with dirt on her legs, as if she has undergone resurrection"[42] 20 57 113 154 69
Rome, 1977–1978 [untitled] On the left, a nude woman sits on the ground in a pensive pose with her back against a wall; around the corner to the right, a calla lily is propped against the wall. 21 65
Rome, 1977–1978 Eel Series "…Her curved naked torso is stretched across a black-and-white patterned floor, enveloping a white bowl with a shiny skinned eel tightly coiled inside. (Woodman printed at least two versions of this image, with her body on either side of the eel.)"[40] 22 91 117 164, 165 94, 213
Antella, 1977–1978 [untitled] A woman stands among small trees with a white sheet covering all but the bottom of her skirt and her lower legs. 99 170 78
Rome, 1978 Self-Deceit #1 A nude woman on all fours turns a corner and looks at herself in a mirror in the middle of the frame. 13 63 105 156 90
Stanwood, Washington, U.S.
1979 Summer [untitled] "Woodman shows herself and her friend wearing old dresses whose prints are analogous to the plants in the surrounding landscape."[45] 41 150- 151 213
New York
1979–1980 [untitled] "Two fox furs are hanging next to each other. Behind the fox, in a corner of the room, the artist, naked, is reaching upward with her arms, her head slightly tilted to the left."[46] 87 123 187 118
1979–1980 [untitled] "...A string of pearls around a naked woman's waist";[46] the woman lies on a patterned cloth with her upper torso outside the frame to the right. 10 84 120 206 144
1979 [untitled] Two similar photographs "show the artist lying on a bench. A corset squeezes and disfigures her body. …tights [are] hanging from the wall."[46] In one version, the head is at the left of the frame; in another version, the head at the right of the frame. 8, 9 86 183 119
1979 [untitled] "Woodman leans upon a chipped wall with her back facing the camera, exposing a skeletonlike pattern. …she puts on an old dress decorated with horizontal bands of a skeletal leaf pattern. … Her right hand holds a big fish skeleton against her bare back…."[45] 38 61 129 194
1980 [untitled] "Sloan appears as the artist’s doppelganger… as a cascade of blond hair falling over the edge of a lion-footed bathtub."[40] 52 139 199 132
MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, U.S.
1980 Summer [untitled] Nude woman on a rock with arms outstretched and head blurred. 36 141 223 106

Videos, 1975–1978Edit

At RISD, Woodman borrowed a video camera and VTR[47] and created videotapes related to her photographs in which she "methodically whitewashes her own naked body, for instance, or compares her torso to images of classical statuary."[48] Some of these videos were displayed at the Helsinki City Art Museum in Finland and the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York in 2004;[49] the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation in Miami in 2005;[48] the Tate Modern in London in 2007–2008;[50] and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2011 (in an exhibition which will travel to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2012).[5] In the 2011–2012 exhibitions, the selected video works, each 23 seconds to 3 minutes 15 seconds in length, were entitled "'Francesca' x 2," "Sculpture," "Corner," "Trace," and "Mask."[51]

Some Disordered Interior Geometries (1981 book)Edit

Woodman created a number of artist's books, such as Portrait of a Reputation, Quaderno dei Dettati e dei Temi (Notebook of Dictations and Compositions), Quaderno (also known as Quaderno Raffaello), Portraits Friends Equasions, and Angels, Calendar Notebook.[52][36][53] However, the only artist's book containing Woodman's photographs that was published during her lifetime was Some Disordered Interior Geometries.[54] Released in January 1981 shortly before Woodman's death, it is 24 pages in length and is based upon selected pages from an Italian geometry exercise book. On the pages, Woodman had attached 16 photographs and had added handwriting and white correction fluid. A study of the book notes that Woodman occasionally re-drew a form "for emphasis or delight."[55] A reproduction of the book's original spreads shows purple-pink covers, pages which vary slightly in color, and traces of pink on several pages.[4] Although the published version of the book has purple-pink covers, the interior pages are printed using only black, white, and shades of gray.[54]

In 1999, a critic was of the opinion that Some Disordered Interior Geometries was "a distinctively bizarre book… a seemingly deranged miasma of mathematical formulae, photographs of herself and scrawled, snaking, handwritten notes."[56] An acquaintance of Woodman wrote in 2000 that it "was a very peculiar little book indeed," with "a strangely ironic distance between the soft intimacy of the bodies in the photographs and the angularity of the geometric rules that covered the pages."[16] A 2006 essay described the book as "a three-way game that plays the text and illustrations for an introduction to Euclid against Woodman's own text and diagrams, as well as the 'geometry' of her formal compositions,"[57] while a 2008 article found the book "poetic and humorous, analytical and reflexive."[55] A 2010 article on Woodman called the book "original and enigmatic,"[58] and a 2010 review stated of the book that "we are the richer for it."[59]

The book is rare; of the 15 libraries in the Online Computer Library Center database that own the book and that have online catalogs showing the book, all hold the book in special collections or similar locations.[60]

Posthumous recognitionEdit

Exhibitions and booksEdit

Front of dust jacket of 2006 book Francesca Woodman; photograph is Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

Woodman had only a few exhibitions during her life, some of which have been described as "exhibitions in alternative spaces in New York and Rome."[61] There were no known group or solo exhibitions of her work between 1981 and 1985, but numerous exhibitions each year since then.[62][63] Among her major solo exhibitions were:

Besides catalogues of the aforementioned traveling solo exhibitions and catalogues of solo exhibitions that did not travel, notable books by and about Woodman include:

  • A monograph published in 2006 by Phaidon Press.[4]
  • A 2010 book examining the relevance of Woodman's photography as a way of understanding Kant's theory of the sublime.[70]
  • Francesca Woodman's Notebook, which was released in 2011.[71] It contains a facsimile of an Italian school exercise book to which Woodman added photographs, as well as an afterword by Woodman's father.[72] This book, also known as Quaderno or Quaderno Rafaello, has been described as "both an urgent missive to a lover and a playful sexual summons."[53]

The films The Fancy and The WoodmansEdit

Poster for the 2011 film The Woodmans including part of "Polka Dots" photograph

In 2000 an experimental video The Fancy, by Elisabeth Subrin, examined Woodman's life and work, "pos[ing] questions about biographical form, history and fantasy, female subjectivity, and issues of authorship and intellectual property."[73][74] Reviewers noted that the video juxtaposes "formalism, biography, and psychoanalysis"[75] and "hints at conspiracy, calling attention to the Woodman family's unwillingness to make the bulk of her body of photography available…."[76]

A feature-length documentary The Woodmans, was released theatrically by Lorber Films[77][78] on the thirtieth anniversary of her death, 18 January 2011. The director "had unrestricted access to all of Francesca’s photographs, private diaries, and experimental videos".[79] Although the film won "Best New York Documentary" at the Tribeca Film Festival, Woodman's parents decided not to attend the premiere.[80] Reactions to the film have been largely favorable. On the film review site Rotten Tomatoes, 94% of 17 critics' reviews were positive, and 83% of 793 user ratings were positive.[81] It was broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens on December 22, 2011.[79][82]

Popular opinionEdit

Public opinion has generally been favorable towards Woodman's work. At the 1998 exhibition in Paris, many people had "strong reactions" to her "interesting" photographs.[14] A number of people have found Woodman's individual photos (for example "Self-portrait at 13"[83]) or her photography in general[84] inspirational.


Among other factors, critics and historians have written that Woodman was influenced by the following literary genre, myth, artistic movement, and photographers:

  • Gothic fiction. She is reported to have identified with Victorian heroines.[85]
  • The myth of Apollo and Daphne, as evidenced by photographs in which Woodman is entangled in tree roots or wears birch bark on her arms.[86]
  • Surrealism.[87][32][88] For example, Woodman "followed the movement's tradition of not explaining work"[14] and demonstrated a "desire to crack the code of appearances."[89]
  • André Breton and in particular his Nadja (novel) of 1928. In a 1979 interview with Roberta Valtorta, Woodman is reported as saying "Vorrei che le parole avessero con le mie immagini lo stesso rapporto che le fotografie hanno con il testo in Nadja di André Breton" ("I would like words to have the same relationship with my images as the photographs have with the text in Nadja by André Breton".[90] Translated by Dunhill.[91])
  • Man Ray (e.g., a series of his photographs of Meret Oppenheim, and his surrealist works).[8][36]
  • Duane Michals.[92][8] Woodman's and Michal's work share features such as blurring, angels, and handwriting in common.[93]
  • Deborah Turbeville.[94][8] Woodman had "admired" Turbeville's work,[13] and had compiled an artist's book for Turbeville (Quaderno Rafaello) which contained a written request for the older photographer to telephone her.[95]
  • Woodman was exposed to the symbolic work of Max Klinger whilst studying in Rome from 1977 to 1978 and his influence can clearly be seen in many photographic series’, such as Eel Series, Roma (1977–78) and Angel Series, Roma (1977). In combining performance, play and self-exposure, Woodman’s photographs create extreme and often disturbing psychological states. In concealing or encrypting her subjects she reminds the viewer that photographs flatten and distort, never offering the whole truth about a subject.



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Further readingEdit

  • Sundell, Margaret. "Vanishing Points: The Photography of Francesca Woodman." In: de Zegher, Catherine, ed. (1996). Inside the visible: an elliptical traverse of 20th century art in, of, and from the feminine. Ghent: Les Editions La Chambre. ISBN 90-72893-18-2. OCLC 84213738. 
  • Buchloh, B H D; Betsy Berne (2004). Francesca Woodman, photographs, 1975–1980. New York: Marian Goodman Gallery. ISBN 0-944219-04-7. OCLC 57449808. 
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  • Cristofovici, Anca (2008). "Chapter 5, Performing Corpo-Realities". Touching Surfaces: Photographic Aesthetics, Temporality, Aging. Amsterdam: Rodopi. pp. 157–192. ISBN 978-90-420-2513-4. 

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