Listen to this article
In the past 10 years or so, there has been a marked increase in the number of photographers using the self-portrait to express ideas about identity and the self. An important forerunner of this trend was the introspective American artist Francesca Woodman, who died in 1981 but whose dark, carefully constructed mise-en-scènes have, in recent years, attracted new critical acclaim.
Presaging the postmodern, conceptual work of Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Gillian Wearing and others, Woodman’s surreal, disturbing, images can be currently seen at two shows in London. As well as a room at Tate Modern as part of the UBS Openings rehang, 30 of her best- known, small-scale works are being exhibited, alongside five recently discovered metre-square prints called “Swan Song”, in the new upper-level space at the Victoria Miro Gallery.
The daughter of artists, Woodman first picked up a camera at 13 and displayed a precocious understanding of the making of art. Her earliest self- portraits, in which she depicts herself as a spectral figure playing hide-and- seek behind a Victorian tombstone, suggest a fascination with the fragility of the human body, a theme that would develop in her later work.
Woodman was part of a vanguard of modernist photographers in the 1970s who became preoccupied with pushing the boundaries of the medium. Where more traditional photographers in effect treated it as a window that could give an objective view of the world, Woodman and her peers, such as Thomas Struth and Jeff Wall, challenged this: the photograph, while concerned with showing us what is indisputably there, can never fully disclose the truth about its subject.
Woodman’s photographs are almost always characterised by a bleak or derelict setting in which she juxtaposes her body with carefully selected props. Heavily influenced by Surrealist tropes of blending the body with architecture and nature, Woodman camouflages herself under fragments of wallpaper, erases parts of her body with sunlight or depicts herself apparently dissolving into the floor. In “House #4, Providence, Rhode Island” (1976) at Victoria Miro, for example, it is unclear whether she is hiding, or emerging from behind a heavy disused fireplace.
Her fascination with photography’s capacity to freeze its subjects within time and space led to an emphasis on process and transformation, which is particularly apparent in her gothic “House” and “Angels” series. With the use of a slow exposure, her body became blurred, suggesting movement, her ghostly figures are poised between presence and absence.
In 1981, aged 22, Woodman committed suicide. For a while it looked as if interest in her work would not long survive her; although her methods were radical for the time, they were swept aside by a new wave of artists in the early 1980s who were preoccupied with the culture of mass media, rendering Woodman’s beautifully ethereal images whimsical and outdated. But her concerns with photography’s relationship (or not) to reality were shared by the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Sherman, and her narrative style has become synonymous with contemporary art photography – think Sam Taylor-Wood, Hannah Starkey and Hellen van Meene. Although her career was tragically short, she increasingly looks like one of the most innovative and relevant photographers of the late 20th century.
Victoria Miro Gallery, London, until July 28. Tel )20 7336 8109.
Tate Modern, London, until November 4. Tel )20 7887 8888.