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The Boston Phoenix Body and Soul

A photographer leaves behind the makings of a myth in a series of curious, often haunting, images

By Fred Turner

FRANCESCA WOODMAN, photographs by Francesca Woodman, edited by Hervé Chandès. Essays by Philippe Sollers, David Levi Strauss, Elizabeth Janus, and Sloan Rankin. Scalo Books, 160 pages, 90 duotones, $39.95.

AUGUST 31, 1998:  If Francesca Woodman had been a poet, she would have been Sylvia Plath. Not the grotesque, determined suicide of "Lady Lazarus" (although Woodman did die by her own hand), nor the raging harridan of "Daddy," but the mysterious, sprite-like Plath of "Ariel," the one who marveled that she was on the earth at all, let alone in female form. Like Plath, Woodman devoted herself to the exploration of the visible landscape of her body and its invisible counterpart, her psyche. And like Plath, Woodman seems to have been born with perfect pitch in her chosen medium. Unlike Plath, however, Woodman has remained relatively unknown to the general public.

That could -- and should -- change with the publication of Francesca Woodman. Although portions of her work have appeared in several exhibition catalogues, Francesca Woodman is the first book to trace the entire arc of the artist's career. Opening with an eerie self-portrait made when she was 13 and closing with the wildly inventive portrait sequences she made in 1980, the year before she died at the age of 22, the book reveals what the earlier selections could only hint at: that over time, Woodman, like Plath, pared the music in her art down toward a single, haunting tone. Even as the range of her photographic techniques increased, the emotional range of her images contracted in ever tightening circles. A sense of loss and longing inhabited her earliest work, but by the end, it came to define it.

Still, with Woodman, as with Plath, we need to resist the temptation to define the art by the artist's suicide. Woodman's images are sometimes bleak, but they're often curious and playful as well. This is especially true of the work she did in Providence, Rhode Island. A student at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1975 to 1979, Woodman lived above the Pilgrim Mills dry-goods store and haunted the city's abandoned factories and Victorian manses. One afternoon, she borrowed Charlie, a famous (and famously fat) RISD model, stripped him naked, and set him to playing with various mirrors and windows in a rundown loft. Eventually Woodman took off her own clothes and joined him. The images of the two of them laughing and posing are hilarious, but as David Levi Strauss points out in his accompanying essay, Woodman's occasional captions remind us of a more serious intent. "Charlie has been a model at RISD for 19 years," she writes (under an image sadly not included here). "I guess he knows a lot about being flattened to fit paper."

Flattened to fit paper? How could anyone this funny, Woodman seems to be asking, ever be transformed into charcoal on paper? And within that question, Woodman asks others: What are the boundaries between our bodies and our images of bodies? Between our selves and our reflections? How could a man this alive ever disappear? Suddenly, what first appeared to be simply a series of cheerful snapshots becomes a row of gray windows, each granting a vertiginous glimpse into the canyons of life and death.

Or perhaps I should say life-in-death, since in Woodman's work, the two realms are constantly intruding on one another. Even in her earliest images, Woodman was fascinated with the ways in which the human body could be made to seem an apparition. As a young teenager, for instance, she photographed a naked person crawling through a large, cross-shaped gap in a tombstone. By using a slow exposure speed, she turned that person's body into a blur, even as she rendered the world around it crisp and clear. Woodman went on to use this technique throughout her life, photographing herself jumping, bending, waving, and stretching, usually in near-empty rooms. Clustered into small, thematic groups, these photographs make up a diary of a woman who would have us see her (and who would perhaps see herself?) as some Shakespearean nymph, always about to dart back into the wall.

Such imagery is not entirely without precedent or subsequent influence. As several critics noted in the late 1980s, Woodman learned a great deal from the narrative portraits of Duane Michaels. In retrospect, one can also see her work presaging the theatrical self-portraits of Cindy Sherman, or even the juvenile dramas Sally Mann composed of her children. Unfortunately, the essays that accompany Woodman's photographs leave these connections underexplored. Woodman's friend and sometime collaborator Sloan Rankin offers a brief set of personal reminiscences, while French novelist Philippe Sollers records his own, idiosyncratic impressions of Woodman's work. Elizabeth Janus describes a year that Woodman lived in Rome and the various artists she encountered there, and David Levi Strauss examines Woodman's debt to surrealism. Despite their occasionally critical intent, these essays ultimately grant more weight to Woodman's biography than to her artistic heritage, and to that extent they underestimate her achievement.

When Woodman leaped from the window of a building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1981, she left behind the makings of a myth. But she also left behind images of an extraordinary internal life. Ultimately, it is the quality of that internal life, rather than the manner in which it ended, that illuminates Woodman's work.

Fred Turner is the author of Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory, published by Anchor Books.

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