director Scott Willis
Ghosts inhabit all photography. Every moment recorded captures something now past, something by nature transitory and temporary, and describing it into eternity. While this is perhaps a philosophical sensibility that doesn’t strike one upon every encounter with photography, it does, in other images, seem utterly “haunted” by a thing, a person, a place, something. Particularly so in the cases of images of people who have departed this mortal coil since the image was recorded for posterity.
The photography of Francesca Woodman can seem haunted on a variety of levels. Her untimely death, by suicide, at the age or 22 lingers over her obsessive self-portraiture inevitably. A mysterious shadow. Her images evoke other eerie qualities without this knowledge heaped on top of them. Her work, largely in black and white, focusing often on her naked figure in contrast and consort with her scenery, a body often distorted or partially erased or hidden, in decaying or dilapidated buildings are recognizably within the Surrealist tradition. They evoke on their own a sense of death or dissolution, dream-like impressions like unanswered questions that continue beyond the frame.
The documentary The Woodmans peers into her history by way of her family who survive her: her mother Betty Woodman and father George Woodman, both dedicated artists, as well as her brother, who also went on to career in art. At first impression, her parents bohemian lifestyle and dedication to their crafts seem somewhat suspect. Perhaps their passion for their art somehow superseded their roles as parents, in particular to what they seemed to prioritize.
But as the film follows through her narrative, it’s clear how devastating her death has become on them, changed them forever. Their relationship with her art and her legacy is somewhat odd, competitive as they are to be recognized as important artists themselves.
The reality is that the enigmatic qualities of Francesca Woodman’s life and art are essentially unanswerable. Who she was, what motivated her, if anything could have rescued her, all those are hypotheticals that one can only hope to guess between the facts, sense, suggest, infer. Her art has gone on since her death to be recognized, collected, archived and considered significant. Like so many artists who experience posthumous success, questions arise as to whether it is their death itself that triggered the interest. Especially so with someone who died so young at her own devices.
The knowledge of her life and story are impossible to separate from her images, if you know it. It doesn’t lessen their value, their efficacy, or impact. There is always more to wish to know. The Woodmans fills in some of the blanks. Few, but some.