Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Francesca Woodman: Chasing shadows

In a piece for ArtReview reprinted in his new collection of essays Working the Room, Geoff Dyer, 'eager to demonstrate some awareness of the technical side of photography', asks Michael Ackerman what the latter does to achieve his trademark blurry style. 'That's just how it is,' Dyer is told.

The same might be true of the work of American Francesca Woodman, whose face is routinely blurred in her self-portraits, head fizzing side-to-side during the photographs' exposure, hiding in plain sight. Woodman was famously her own favourite model. As she said: 'It's a matter of convenience, I am always available.' (There is a more playful comment I can't find, how her fellow students must be fed up with seeing her in all these pictures.)

Her identity hidden in this way, it's not always easy to recognise the often nude artist in her work. (A curled metal ring is one cue.) She poses herself like a sculpture in a precariously poised fireplace, lying on top of a wardrobe, or hanging from a doorframe; she creates an Yves Klein-esque imprint of her torso on a dusty studio floor. She uses found props: a pane of glass is pressed over her crotch to create a disorienting reflection or, more dangerously, against a breast. The settings tend to be deserted rooms, wallpaper peeling, the sort we're used to seeing in countless bad movies - this is photography as performance.

I first encountered Woodman's work in the Artist Rooms touring series at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art only last year; about a tenth of her 500-strong oeuvre went on show today at Victoria Miro, in an exhibition running until 22 January. Born in 1958, the daughter of a photographer, Woodman committed suicide in New York by jumping from a window (there is a section on Wikipedia of 'suicides by jumping from a height' but is there not a better term?).

The introduction to a retrospective of her work in Murcia, Spain, last year includes this unfortunate phrase: 'Up until her untimely death at the early age of 22, in a brief albeit extremely intense trajectory, she mapped the territories of estrangement and solitude…' The catalogue is otherwise coy about her death, presumably in keeping with the wishes of the artist's estate; while this does no disservice to her photographs, it's difficult to see portraits of Woodman with coils of silver birch bark wrapped round her wrists like bandages without thinking of her depression.

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