Review: The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman

By: Elizabeth Gumport
The New York Review of Books

Francesca Woodman: House #3, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

Given that her complete catalogue is composed almost entirely of work she produced as a student, the posthumous critical esteem for American photographer Francesca Woodman is astonishing. Unlike music or math, where precocious displays of talent are not uncommon, photography tends not to have prodigies. Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at age 22, is considered a rare exception. That she has achieved such status is all the more remarkable considering only a quarter of the approximately 800 images she produced—many of them self-portraits—have ever been seen by the public.

Now, on the thirtieth anniversary of her death, Woodman is having something of a moment. In coming months, her work will be shown by several British galleries, and later this year San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art will mount a major retrospective of her work, the first of its kind in the United States. In 2012, the show will travel to the Guggenheim. The Woodmans—C. Scott Willis’s thoughtful new documentary about the photographer and her family—opened last week at Film Forum in New York.

Taken between 1972 and 1981, Woodman’s photographs are almost all black-and-white and have a general softness of focus not often seen these days. They depict a world almost identical to the one captured by earlier generations of photographers, as if Woodman’s camera were a filter through which the neon clutter of contemporary life could not pass. Some of these images have the polished smoothness of Surrealist photographs, like those of Man Ray and Hans Bellmer, in which precisely-rendered objects are arranged so deliberately it seems the slightest movement would alter the meaning entirely. (Fluent in Italian, Woodman spent her junior year in Rome, where she paid frequent visits to the Libreria Maldoror, a bookshop-gallery that specialized in work about and by Surrealists, and which ultimately hosted her first small show.) She makes use of many Surrealist motifs, among them mirrors, gloves, birds, and bowls. Like Magritte, she often shrouds her subjects in white sheets. READ ARTICLE

Trailer for The Woodmans

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