Francesca Woodman, Self-portrait, (1977)
Strauss looks at the work by the artist Francesca Woodman, many of her pictures were self portraits. Sadly Woodman took her own life, whilst still only 22 years old. This latter fateful knowledge cannot help influencing the way we view her art. Because these are photographs, “evidence of a novel kind,” our projections are inevitable. As Roland Barthes and others have pointed out, paintings and drawings are iconic, while photographs are indexical; that is, they always point to something else. (p126, Strauss, 2005).
Francesca Woodman Untitled, Rome (1977-78)
Strauss believes that Woodman’s artistic style could arguably come closer to that of surrealism than anything else. The relation of Woodman’s work to surrealist photography is not primarily one of style, although its focus on transformation and deformation of the female nude, its attraction to romantic ruins and dilapidated interiors, and its use of fetish and found objects (“those object-talismans surrealism still cares much about” -1) – gloves, swans, umbrellas, costume jewellery, and mirrors – are surrealist tropes, and a number of single works (such as the “explosante-fixe” before the wall in Rome) and sets (such as the “veiled-erotic” of “Horizontal/Verticale”) could almost have been by Man Ray or Lee Miller….But Woodman’s work participates not so much in the surrealist style as in its substance, its original revolutionary desire to crack the code of appearances and see through the looking glass. (p128-129, Strauss, 2005).
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, from Polka Dots Series, Providence, Rhode Island (1976)
Strauss quotes from Rosalind Krauss, “Photographing in the Service of Surrealism,” in Krauss and Jane Livingston, L’Amour fou: Photography & Surrealism (Washington, D.C. and New York: The Corcoran Gallery of Art and Abberville Press, 1985). Krauss writes that surrealist photography “exploits the very special connection to reality with which all photography is endowed. Photography is an imprint or transfer of the real; it is photochemically processed trace casually connected to the thing in the world to which it refers in a way parallel to the fingerprints or footprints or the rings of water that cold glasses leave on tables,” (p,129, Strauss, 2005).
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island (1976)
Strauss writes: Whereas photographs most often trace the relation between the one photographing and the one photographed, in Woodman’s images that relation is collapsed. The result is not the closed circuit of narcissism (which all women photographing themselves are accused of inhabiting) since it always imagines an other, a viewer outside (space and time). The playful eroticism of Woodman’s odalisques is neither narcissism nor deconstruction of the male gaze, since these images are clearly directed outward, to an other. This other – whether an individual or the camera – is actually the Narcissus to Woodman’s Echo. When Woodman looks in the mirror, she is looking in the mirror for the camera, which is us, since the camera is our temporal representative. Given that cameras have most often been in the hands of men who want to look at women, a beautiful young woman handling her own camera is always a subversion. (p,130, Strauss, 2005).
Francesca Woodman, Self-deceit #1, Rome, Italy, (1978)
Strauss describes a photo that Woodman took of a male model called Charlie and in the photograph is included several other elements: In this image appear three different modulators representing three elements of transformation: a sheet of glass (transparency), a mirror (reflection), and a window (illumination). (p,131, Strauss, 2005).
Francesca Woodman, Charlie the model #5, (1976)
1 – Andre Breton, Mad Love, English trans. of L’Amour fou by Mary Ann Caws (Lincoln NE and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), p101.