Francesca Woodman’s photographs, dress and ambiguous narratives

I first discovered Francesca Woodman’s photographs whilst I was working at the company Phillips de Pury. I was sorting through some catalogues and came across the work, Self Portrait at Thirteen, Boulder, Colorado, 1972. I was struck by her age and the estimated price. Untitled, Rome, 1977-78 sold for $170, 500 on the 4th April 2012. Her self-awareness struck me as being immediately of our time. Both her playfulness with the camera and her seeming insistence to photograph herself held my gaze. As I paused to gather my thoughts, what also collapsed time and made me connect so viscerally with the photograph, was the medium of dress.

Here is an extract from an essay I wrote this year in Dr. Rebecca Arnold’s History of Dress MA. The extract discusses ‘After My Grandmothers Funeral’a photograph that helps to communicate how Woodman’s understanding of fashion offers a narrative possibility to her images hereto unexplored.

“The cinematic qualities of the image were elucidated by the curator Lynne Cooke in the exhibition Ellipsis who celebrates connections between Woodman and the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. The term ‘ellipsis’ makes reference to an important formal device used in modernist film in which an element of film narrative which does not need to be shown or stated is removed from screen. Antonioni’s use of ellipsis is distinct in that he extended the use in order to mark moments of uncertainty in films such as L’Eclisse (1962) and L’Aventura (1960). Here, Woodman appears like an Antonioni heroine, her dress signals an awareness of fashion and the filmic qualities of the image exacerbate the fictional qualities of Woodman’s fashionable attire.

The image thus concedes to the cinematic device ellipsis that echoes the use of dress as creating an ambiguous narrative or missing link, caught between a protective covering and a simultaneous statement of a fragile interior state of mind. The etched pencil title, ‘After my grandmothers funeral’ tints the image with a ceremonial, ritualistic event, that is not present in the photograph. The fur coat encases Woodman in a way that is seems both protective and defensive perhaps embodying Woodman’s ambiguity towards Fashion as either an extension of thought or rationally separating dress and thought. Whilst the colour black evokes an interior consciousness, mimicking a solemn state of mourning on the outside, Woodman’s clothing suggests the sensory quality of touch.

Through this image dress becomes a mechanism for Woodman to reconfigure the narrative possibilities of objects. In her photographs concerning her grandmother, Woodman’s characteristic use of clothing as lining, becoming an extension of skin, is replaced by a more complex relationship to the clothing. Clothing takes on an element of agency itself. The objects embody her absent grandmother and rather than relishing in a characteristic blur, Woodman can be seen to archive the objects by integrating them into her own work and associating them with her own living body.

This essay tries to capture how Francesca loved fashion and little, if no critical consideration is given to her clothes. They add something to the images, and in part attracted me to her astounding body of work.”