The photography of Francesca Woodman, now on view at the Guggenheim, outruns the shadow of her famous suicide

'Polka Dots, Providence, Rhode Island,' 1976 (© 2012 George and Betty Woodman)
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Let's get it out of the way: the body of remarkable photographs currently on display at the Guggenheim Museum’s fourth-floor annex were produced by Francesca Woodman between 1975 and 1981, the year she killed herself at the age of 22 by jumping out of the window of her New York loft.

Woodman’s demise, which occurred soon after the publication of her first artist’s book Some Disordered Interior Geometries and a few days before her father, a painter and ceramics maker, was scheduled to participate in a group show at the Guggenheim, threatens, in the appraisal of her work, to become the punctum of the images, as if, looking at her pictures, one might see death itself. This is a mistake.

Black-and-white and mostly small—roughly 6 inches by 6 inches—Woodman’s photographs are typically termed “moody” or “evocative” or, most typically of all, “haunting.” These are, in practice, synonyms for “suicidal”: the mood of the pictures is understood to be despairing; they evoke, post-fact, the artist’s self-destruction; they are haunted by her headlong drive to death.

Like Sylvia Plath, another preternaturally gifted female artist-suicide to whom she is often likened despite the obvious differences in their mediums, Woodman has, in the popular imagination, come to be defined by the circumstances of her death no less than the content of her work. (A 2010 documentary, The Woodmans, which included interviews with Woodman’s parents George and Betty and her brother Charlie, artists all, interspersed with shots of her photography and journals, cemented her entry into pop consciousness.) Indeed, that work is often wielded like a Magic-8 Ball, a shake-it-up-glean-an-insight tool for answering unanswerable questions.

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Compellingly lurid though the subject of Woodman’s suicide may be, to dwell on it is to miss the full splendor of her photographs, their full range of influences (and afterlives), their sly beauty and humor.

The Guggenheim show, simply and forthrightly titled Francesca Woodman, first appeared at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the New York manifestation has been organized by Jennifer Blessing, Senior Curator of Photography, who presents the 120 pictures on view—most produced between 1975 and 1978, when Woodman was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design—grouped by the locale of their creation. Thus, the show is divided into “Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-78”; “Italy, 1977-78,” where Woodman spent her junior year as part of an honors program; “MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980,” an artists’ colony where Woodman spent a month; and “New York, 1979-81,” where she moved after graduation, hoping, initially, to pursue a career in fashion photography. (There is also a selection of short videos, incomplete and experimental, made while Woodman was at RISD.)

The pictures are presented simply, framed in white. (The majority of the photographs are vintage gelatin silver prints, though some of the later works serve as examples of Woodman’s experimentation once she arrived in New York post-RISD; these include blue-tinted and sepia-toned diazotypes and two tiny color chromogenic prints.) Many, if not most, are of Woodman herself. Even when her subject is another young woman, there is an unrepentant resemblance to the photographer, something that, in an early image, becomes a visual witticism, as three naked woman appear with their faces obscured by photographs of Woodman’s face. This interest in self-portraiture tends to create an impression of Woodman’s oeuvre as somewhere between confessional and self-obsessed, but, alone and in aggregate, the works convey something smarter, more vital.

In image after image, Woodman explores the gaze in all of its multiplicity: there is the male gaze, of course, and its effect on female subjectivity—Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay on “Visual Pleasure and the Cinema” was published in 1975, and its influence, especially in academic and art-school circles, was immediate—and Woodman both acknowledges and toys with its implications. A 1975 series of four photographs in which Woodman poses in front of a large mirror is inscribed by the artist with “A woman. A mirror. A woman is a mirror for a man,” but another series, dating from 1976 and entitled Charlie the Model, makes use of a male model, a rotund, quasi-comical fellow, posing with a mirror; in the series’ final image, Woodman poses behind the kneeling, even cowering, Charlie, reversing expectations for male-female power relations. Throughout, Woodman is interested in such reversals, and her work suggests that the female assumption of authority and control, of the male provenance of looking, is inevitably complicated, even a little dangerous.

Woodman’s pictures are filled with nude female bodies, often her own. These bodies are frequently faceless, sometimes shown from neck to knee, sometimes flashing anonymous parts. It is as if Woodman is performing a form of blazoning, the poetic tradition, popularized by Petrarch, of praising a woman’s beauty by describing parts of her body in isolation. Blazoning, feminist critics have long remarked, is a form of violence, a surgical gaze. In her depictions of women’s limbs, their torsos and heads seemingly melding with their environments, which are, in Woodman’s photographs, more often than not decrepit houses, there is a suggestion of the way in which women’s bodies are subsumed by the domestic, separated from themselves by the demands of the world surrounding them. In these photographs—most obviously in the “House” and the “Space²” series—Woodman literalizes and, in the process, satirizes the Victorian trope of the “Angel in the House,” the apparitional women becoming angels in practice and evoking ghosts and ghouls.

Woodman’s attraction to the Gothic and her interest in Victorian novels has been noted by many an art critic, and these influences are readily seen in many of the displayed works. In the “Directing Lightning” series, Woodman poses twisted into shapes, wearing a veil, suggesting Miss Havisham performing the floor portion of her gymnastics routine. Elsewhere, she takes on the “fallen woman,” that violated and put-upon Victorian trope. In Portrait of a Reputation, an early artist’s book, Woodman stages a progressive tableau, in which the smears of paint across her body are finally the only trace left behind, the body vanished by the final image. Like Tess Durbeyfield, the tragic heroine of Hardy’s 1891 novel, she tries to hold on to the world only to come undone under the weight of her own beauty and its effects. In other images, she is Bertha Mason, the mad wife locked in the attic, an obstacle and a conduit of female anger, a piercing protest against confinement and stricture. The spaces she takes for backdrops are at once open and claustrophobic, and she thrives in them, then breaks free.

Francesca Woodman showcases an artist realizing her singular, searing vision. Made necessarily circumscribed by her early death, Woodman’s work is rife with reference, rich with meanings gleaned from outside itself. She is not, finally, photography’s answer to Sylvia Plath, but perhaps its Emily Dickinson, a woman committed to her craft, unafraid to blur boundaries, to challenge the convention of received wisdom. Dickinson was fond, in her poetry, of punning “eye” and “I,” and Woodman’s camera—an “eye” of sorts—becomes a shorthand for self. Woodman’s “eye” engages with the modern world in all its mythical dimensions, and the pleasure of this exhibit lies in its invitation to see as she saw, tragedy and all.

'Francesca Woodman' is on view through June 13 at the Guggenheim Museum. All images © 2012 George and Betty Woodman