Fatal attraction

Photography - John Henshall on the disturbing life, work and death of Francesca Woodman

Evidently we are not supposed to piece together the true story behind the eight-year trail of tragedy that was the career and adult life of Francesca Woodman, a photographer from Denver, Colorado, who started taking pictures at the age of 13, pictures which are almost exclusively of herself and which frequently show her apparently evaporating on celluloid before our very eyes. Yet, as courageously as the curators of her first solo show here and the contributors to the book that accompanies it may try, they cannot disguise that this is a tale of reckless self-absorption, utter estrangement from reality and, ultimately, I believe, psychiatric or other illness of some kind.

Woodman was at art school in Providence, Rhode Island, spent a disconcertingly aimless, distracted sojourn in Rome then returned to America to rent a loft in Manhattan's bullishly bohemian Lower East Side. She spent much of 1980 at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where she was artist-in-residence. At the end of 1980 she returned to New York and, in early January 1981, she published a distinctively bizarre book called Some Disordered Interior Geometries. Perhaps the title revealed more about her state of mind than she intended. Maybe it was the nearest she could bring herself to making a request for help. It is a seemingly deranged miasma of mathematical formulae, photographs of herself and scrawled, snaking, handwritten notes.

This woman has been hailed as a prodigy, a prophet and a putative genius. I can affirm that she left a thoroughly distinctive oeuvre. She materialises and dematerialises like an apparition in photographs whose mise en scene is deliberately so minimalist as to focus the viewer's attention on one thing and on only one thing, absolutely all the time: her. She regularly poses naked for no apparent reason. She hides, she partially covers herself, she reveals a foot, an arm, a view of the back of her shoulder. Her penchant for performing deshabillee was not always well received. She was once ejected from the Museum of Natural History in New York by a security guard who was astonished to find her stripping off in front of the animal exhibits in order to photograph herself with them.

She uses a whole repertoire of photographic legerdemain to create pictures in which she seems to dissolve into the print itself, like a medium swirling in ectoplasm in some news magazine for psychics. She rarely takes a "normal" photograph of any kind.

Woodman was, I think, a confused, disoriented woman whose obvious talent was tainted by a death wish from the time she picked up a camera. I imagine she deliberately contrived to dissolve in her autoportraits because from her early teens she had wanted oblivion. Barely a week after she published her strange and twisted book, she hurled herself from her apartment window on to a freezing and final sidewalk below. Her wish had been fulfilled. She was 23.

Woodman's friend from her college days at the Rhode Island School of Design, Sloan Rankin, shows us an extract from one of the last letters Woodman wrote to her, in late 1980: "My life at this point is like very old coffee-cup sediment and I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments . . . instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things . . . "

An unspecified catalogue editor confirms, perhaps unintentionally, in a terse, non-committal biography, what I suspected the moment I saw Woodman's frankly outlandish output: that what she really wished to be was a fashion photographer or some kind of photojournalist, but that she was torn between pursuing this goal and wanting to be the model in the pictures, the subject of the reportage, too: "She put together portfolios that she sent to a number of fashion photographers, among them Deborah Turbeville, whose work she had admired for some time, [but] her solicitations did not lead anywhere."

Rankin comes closest to what is obviously being glossed over in this show and its catalogue: that Woodman was mentally disturbed. Rankin notes: "I never had the impression that photography was the medium best suited for [Woodman] . . . " Yet she declines to say what she thinks might have been the right one. Woodman seems like an actress and choreographer who somehow chose at a dangerously early age the wrong modus operandi to get the results she was obviously hell-bent on achieving, with the appalling result that she found herself, in this lifetime, already a denizen of Dante's selva oscura, so decided to seek something more amenable in another one.

Rankin observes, "I did not see her during the bad days in New York", but again does not say what form these strange days took. She adds: "I remember the good days filled with wit and humour, turn of phrase and clever contradictions, the velvet, fur, tulle and taffeta-patterned days . . . " This faintly precious, lardy feel pervades the show.

Francesca Woodman wasted a powerful gift because she tried to exploit it before even she knew what it was, let alone what to do with it. She has left us a suicide note in the form of a decade's photography. You should see this show. As you wander round it, remember Woodman's random notes from a journal she kept: ostensibly she is deciding what to eat tonight: "tuna fish and a lot of peach mumble . . . I have ideas cooking - [I] simply need to get started before they stick to the bottom of the pan . ."

"Francesca Woodman 1958-1981" is at the Photographers' Gallery, Great Newport Street, London WC2 (0171-831 1772) until 18 September. A book/catalogue is published by Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain (Scalo Zurich and Thames & Hudson) at £27.50

This article first appeared in the 23 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, No Jews on their golf courses