Feminist Artist


(1958 – 1981)


Francesca Woodman. Polka Dots. Providence, Rhode Island, 1976.


“This action that I foresee has nothing to do with melodrama. It is that life as lived by me now is a series of exceptions…I was (am?) not unique but special. This is why I was an artist…I was inventing a language for people to see the everyday things that I also see…and show them something different…” 

Francesca Woodman – Last journal entry, January 1981.

Francesca Woodman was born on April 3, 1958 in Denver, CO. She was the daughter of renowned and respected artists George Woodman and Betty Woodman. At the age of thirteen, Woodman attended a private boarding school, where she began taking photographs and developing her skills in said art. She also spent summers with her family in Italy where many of her photographs were taken. The influence and support Woodman received from her parents were important factors for her to become a female artist as well as to the accessibility she had to enroll in an art academic. Contrary to other women artists, Woodman had the privileged to be born into a family of artists, to grow up surrounded by art, and, thus, was encouraged to pursue her passion for photography.


Francesca Woodman. Untitled. New York, 1980.

Francesca Woodman and her father, George, in a photograph she took in 1980.


In 1975, Woodman began attending the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, RI (“Francesca Woodman”, http://www.artnet.com/artists/francesca-woodman/). By the time she had enrolled at RISD, she was already considered by her professors and classmates as an extremely talented and brilliant student as well as a mature artist with a remarkable focused approach to her work (“Francesca Woodman”, http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/past/exhibit/4432). Woodman already knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish whereas most students arrived to RISD without knowing what to study. As one fellow classmate recall, “she exuded a rock star quality” (The Woodmans). While at RISD, she had the opportunity to study one year abroad in Rome as part of the RISD honors program, which served as a enormously source of inspiration that improved her work. After graduating from RISD in 1978, Woodman moved to New York to pursue a career in photography. In 1980, Woodman began experimenting with fashion photography, however, without following the mainstream fashion practices used in the 1970s (Townsend, 40).

Francesca Woodman’s work has often described as “intense.” She photographed herself obsessively, thus, making herself the center of her work magnifies that intensity. The earliest photograph Woodman took of herself is called Self-Portrait at Thirteen and was taken in Boulder, Colorado, in 1972. In it, the artist appears sat down, fully clothed, rather than nude, with her long hair covering entirely her face, and her left hand pressing a shutter lead that extends in a blur towards the camera and the audience(“Francesca Woodman –A Review”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/nov/21/francesca-woodman-photographs-miro-review). The importance of black-and-white in her photographs creates a mysterious and gothic aura of the situation in each picture. Further, the small size of the prints adds to the intimate atmosphere of her work as well as a more powerful presence.


Francesca Woodman. Self-Portrait at Thirteen. Boulder, Colorado, 1972.


Francesca Woodman’s work has been described as modern, surrealist, and gothic, and is a vivid representation of her female subjectivity and conceptual practice. Further, while in Rome, Woodman was greatly influenced by the work of Max Klinger, which can be appreciated in her photograph Eel Series Roma (1977-78). In this series of photographs, Woodman lies naked on the floor, in vulnerable body position, which is curve while trying to embody the curved form of the eel. In this series, Woodman appears as sexual being both in control and defenseless, thus, the femininity conveyed by the artist in it can be interpreted in either way. Other artists that significantly influenced Woodman’s work include May Ray (American, 1890 – 1976) and Duane Michals (American, b. 1932).


Francesca Woodman. Untitled (from Eel Series). Rome, 1977-78.



Francesca Woodman. Untitled (from Eel Series). Rome, 1977-78.



Francesca Woodman. Untitled (from Eel Series). Rome, 1977-78.

Woodman thought of herself as an accomplished artist who had something to say to the world through her work but that no one wanted to see. She felt that she was already an artist with capital A and felt very distressed that her work was not been recognized to the level she thought it deserved (The Woodmans). During the 1980s, the art of photography was not as popular and well-known as it is nowadays, thus, Woodman would send portfolios to photographers and studios with no success of recognition (“Francesca Woodman”, http://www.artnet.com/artists/francesca-woodman/). Consequently, Woodman fell into a long depression and later that year attempted to commit suicide. After living with her parents in New York, her mental health seemed to improve. However, she became depressed again after she was rejected a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Therefore, on January 19th, 1981, at the age of twenty-two, she threw herself off a building in New York and died only five days before the most important show of her father’s career (The Woodmans).

Francesca Woodman left an archive of approximately more than 800 prints, most of which are untitled. Most of her photographs are only known by date and location (“Francesca Woodman”, http://www.artnet.com/artists/francesca-woodman/). Her death seems to have been foreshadowed through her complex and mysterious images, as she often appeared in her black-and-white pictures as a blurred, shadowy, ghost-like figure often half-hidden as if she was trying to hide from the camera (“Francesca Woodman –A Review”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/nov/21/francesca-woodman-photographs-miro-review). It is through these deserted interior spaces, that Woodman merges her nude body with the surroundings of each scenario; for example, “covered by sections of peeling wallpaper, half-hidden behind the flat plane of a door, or crouching over a mirror” (“Francesca Woodman”, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512). Using the representation of the body in relation to its surroundings, Woodman’s photographs explore the human body through issues of gender and self, in which she is the center of the frame most of the time. Her photographs are produced in thematic series, in which unusual objects and specific props are carefully placed to create unsettling, surreal scenarios in specific places or situations (“Francesca Woodman”, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512).


Francesca Woodman. Untitled. MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980.




Francesca Woodman. Untitled. Providence, Rhode Island, 1976.


Moreover, Woodman’s work has been discussed in terms of feminist theory because of her critique to the historical and linguistic construction of femininity, as her work is said to represent a form of feminist aesthetic. In her work, “the body is understood either as emerging from the object” (Townsend, 38), as a representation of the teenage artist coming into womanhood. In other words, through her photographs, Woodman has created a defense mechanism against a hostile environment, “a camouflaging of the subject” in which the vulnerable female figure hides from the structures of gendered vision (Townsend, 38). A further observation made to Woodman’s is the use of ‘double allegiance,’ meaning that she “both belongs to an established and masculine-dominated tradition of art and, at the same time, employs a feminist critique of its aesthetics and ideologies” (Townsend, 39).

The surrealism and melodrama used in Woodman’s work creates a sense of displacement and disorientation to the observer while, at the same, romanticizing the figures in each photograph. In the picture below, Woodman photographed two women on the beach, one holding a small oval mirror while the other lies on the sand with a couple of calla lilies. While the head of the standing model is cropped by the frame, the second model’s head inverted reflection on the oval mirror seems to substitute the standing model’s head. Through the use of inversion, rotation, and displacement, Woodman creates a sense of surrealism by implying the identity of the model may be substituted, perhaps through the use of violence (Townsend, 41).


Francesca Woodman. Untitled. New York, 1979-80.



  1. During our first and second week of classes, we talked about the exclusion of women artists’ participation in art other than as models, and about the distress women artists felt as they were heavily discouraged by society to pursue a degree in art. Based on our readings from Week #1 and Week#2, to what extent do you think Woodman was influenced by her parents’ profession? Would Woodman be considered privileged in contrast to other women artists’ life situations? What would have happened to Woodman if her parents would not have been supportive of her passion for photography? (I highly recommend you to watch the documentary The Woodmans to learn more about Francesca’s life and work as well as about her family before and after her death. Available in Netflix http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=074vh1l8rs8 )
  2. How do you feel about Francesca Woodman’s photographs? What emotions do the black-and-white, blurred, ghost-like figures in the images convey to you? Do you find them psychologically disturbing or distressing? Do you think Woodman’s obsession of photographing herself foreshadowed her suicide?
  3. Take a look at the photographs presented above or watch the following short video to learn more about Woodman’s work http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5i-b5OKL_Fw . Choose an image and explain how Woodman is critiquing the feminist aesthetics and ideologies socially constructed, according to her, by a “masculine-dominated tradition of art.” How does Woodman uses the representation of the body in relation to its surroundings to explore this and to address issues of gender and self?


“Francesca Woodman.” Artnet. http://www.artnet.com/artists/francesca-woodman/  February 22, 2013.

“Francesca Woodman.” Guggenheim. http://www.guggenheim.org/newyork/exhibitions/past/exhibit/4432  February 22, 2013.

“Francesca Woodman 1958-1981.” Tate. Art & Artists. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512  February 22, 2013.

Holden, Stephen. “The Woodmans: A Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Suicide.” The New York Times. Movie Review, January 18, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/19/movies/19wood.html?_r=1& February 22, 2013.

O’Hagan, Sean. “Francesca Woodman –review.” The Guardian/The Observer. November 20, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/nov/21/francesca-woodman photographs-miro-review  February 22, 2013.

The Woodmans. Dir. C. Scott Willis. Lorber Films, 2011. Documentary Film.

Townsend, Chris. Francesca Woodman. Phaidon Press, 2006. Print.









4 thoughts on “Feminist Artist

  1. How do you feel about Francesca Woodman’s photographs? What emotions do the black-and-white, blurred, ghost-like figures in the images convey to you? Do you find them psychologically disturbing or distressing? Do you think Woodman’s obsession of photographing herself foreshadowed her suicide?

    I really love Francesca Woodman’s photographs. I have always been partial to black and white photos, with their somber overtones and romanticized look. They seem sit with me so differently than that of colored photographs. For some unexplainable reason they make me “feel” more in a way that makes them easier to connect to. My two favorite images are the women on the beach and the woman lost in the wallpaper. The wallpaper image appeared, to me, to be more of a way to “camouflage and protect” than it does as a way for the artist to show herself emerging into womanhood. It appears as though she is hiding not only behind but within the walls, to protect herself from the gender stereotypes perpetuated by society. I do not find these photos psychologically disturbing or distressing I actually find them quite beautiful. I do not personally believe these photos directly foreshadow her suicide. I think they show a young, incredibly talented woman, trying to find her place in the world. Her work is soft and almost delicate, but nothing about it is weak. She is making a larger comment on something that suppresses us all. In many ways one can see that although she was incredibly talented, she was also profoundly sad.

  2. I love Woodman’s work, and I’m so glad she is a featured artist in this class so I got the chance to learn more about her life. I think that if you view her work already knowing about how her life ended, you will read into it differently than if you viewed it without that knowledge. I think that her black and white surrealism is beautiful in a haunting way, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it disturbing or distressing. What I love about her work is that she wasn’t afraid to express the emotions that we all feel but rarely discuss. Our culture has such an aversion to emotions that fall outside of the generally “happy” category, especially when they come from women (who are always supposed to hold it together). But when an artist creates a work that expresses natural feelings of loneliness, sadness, fear, etc., it acts as a powerful tool for the viewer to both connect with the artist and also reflect on their own inner workings/emotions.

  3. How do you feel about Francesca Woodman’s photographs? What emotions do the black-and-white, blurred, ghost-like figures in the images convey to you? Do you find them psychologically disturbing or distressing? Do you think Woodman’s obsession of photographing herself foreshadowed her suicide?

    I think her photographs are extremely impactful for the viewer. The blurred figures indicate to me that she does not feel that she is fully present in her own photo. The blurriness combined with the fact that you cannot see the faces of the figures in most of them suggest that the person is weak, unable to look back at the viewer. I do not know if her obsession of photographing herself foreshadowed her suicide; I do think however that the images convey the emotions that she was probably feeling which are distressing. She expresses how she feels in her own life which can translate to others who feel the same way. I think many times we fall into moods that are represented in the photographs Woodman has done and we can all relate to the emotions she evokes in her work.

  4. How do you feel about Francesca Woodman’s photographs? What emotions do the black-and-white, blurred, ghost-like figures in the images convey to you? Do you find them psychologically disturbing or distressing? Do you think Woodman’s obsession of photographing herself foreshadowed her suicide?

    Wow. Praise for Francesca Woodman. Upon viewing her work, I was extremely impacted by an intense feeling of almost an embarrassed sense of honesty. She very blatantly pulls forth emotions that are difficult to describe, but also hides her face, implying an inability to face the viewer, or maybe reality. The eery beauty of the blurred bodies due to long exposure, the simplicity and complexity created by the black and white imagery. When I scroll back up the page, looking at her work for a second time, I am struck by one of the first photographs, “Self-portrait at thirteen.” The transition between this photo and some of her other works seems so distant. In it, her hair covers her face as she uses the long shutter trigger to take the photo. Unlike most of the photos you see in her various series, she is fully clothed. Looking at it a second time, this made her work at an early age seem so different from those photographs later in her career. But as you described, she is hiding her face from the viewer, already adept at hiding from the camera. In doing so, Woodman has already (if unknowingly) portrayed and discovered (maybe even foreshadowed) a main theme for the rest of her career.

    Her photographs really provoke a swirling mixture of emotions for me. Ones that I cannot necessarily describe. They are, put simply, quite striking. I feel a sense of aching, of longing. These photos are not taken from the perspective of the male viewer, which is refreshing, and fortunately characteristic to much feminist work of the time. I will admit, the surrealism of her photography combined with the starkness of the of black and white medium is definitely thought-provoking if not somewhat distressing. It is possible that these photos foreshadowed her suicide. I really feel like they represent the complexity of emotion and frustration that many female artists of the time dealt with. The sometimes disturbing images really bring to light some of the emotions that society is unwilling to admit they feel everyday. Sadness, loneliness, confusion, distress, fear — they’re all natural emotions, but society today makes everyone plaster a smile on their face and act like emotional turmoil doesn’t exist. I really appreciate Woodman’s honest perspective of her inner feelings (and the parallel feelings that many of her viewers likely experience).

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