The Spectral Self-Portraits of Francesca Woodman

‘These are photographs in which moments – and lives – are constantly moving from then to now, bodies finding echoes in the world around them’

Francesca Woodman, From Eel Series, Venice Italy, 1978, Gelatin silver estate print, 20.3 x 25.4 cm. Courtesy: Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Francesca Woodman, From Eel Series, Venice, Italy, 1978, gelatin silver estate print, 20 x 25 cm. Courtesy: Victoria Miro Gallery, London

I have always loved Francesca Woodman’s work: her spectral self-portraits, the body at their centre yet always out of reach – its edges lost in plaster, of light and shadow as much as it is flesh. A recent exhibition highlighted the artist’s photographs from 1977–78, when she spent a formative year studying abroad in Rome. What strikes me about these images are their textures, and what texture can suggest of experience and of time. Several series are staged within the Pastificio Cerere: an abandoned, dilapidated pasta factory in Rome’s San Lorenzo neighbourhood. In Self-deceit (1978), Woodman poses nude with a rough-edged mirror, the building’s crumbling, reef-like walls already stretching forwards and back: industry’s vanitas; witnesses to moments that have also fallen away. Captured through long exposure, the artist’s body blurs, seems poised to disappear. These are photographs in which moments – and lives – are never flattened and fixed: they are constantly moving from then to now, bodies finding echoes in the world around them. In ‘Eel Series, Venice, Italy’ (1978), Woodman lies on a granite floor, her limbs straining towards the contours of a bowl and the fleshy eel twisted within; bent, sinewy bodies, held by surfaces cold and hard. These rhymes seem to carry latent truths – about the body, nature, time – holding them at their centre yet always out of reach.

Caroline Marciniak is editorial coordinator of frieze and is based in London. 

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

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