Francesca Woodman was a photographer who is well known for her surreal, black and white photography of which she is often the subject. The daughter of a family of artists, Francesca studied photography at RISD and in Italy, ultimately settling in New York City, where she had a studio. She died in 1982 at age twenty-two by suicide, jumping out of the Barbizon building.
Not everyone knew about her depression. But it was something she lived with, and it can be traced in fragments from what she left behind. In a letter to a friend two years before her death, Woodman wrote, “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.”
Someone who believes death is final would see this phrase as contradictory: she killed herself, and didn’t keep the one most essential delicate thing that made her produce all of the work: herself. I’d argue, however, that Woodman isn’t gone. She’s very much here, and not only because she preserved herself through her art. For some time now, she’s been beside me, helping me to keep on keeping on, and as time goes on, I feel more and more grateful.
I first noticed Woodman’s presence months after I made a music video with a friend for a band. I was living in Chicago at the time, and making it through each day had become a challenge. The only thing that helped me was to make things, so every chance I got, I did. Once the video was finished, instead of sharing the entire thing, we posted a still from it on social media. In the still, my friend and I are in an alley, stopping our movement phrase for several counts, and looking directly at the camera. Our hands are both up and in front of us, and I am behind my friend. My hair is long and I’m wearing a beige skirt.
I really like it: the shape of our bodies, our expressions, the lighting. And I’m so glad it was posted when it was, because it’s proof that Woodman has been beside me before I even knew who she was.
I kept making videos and choreographing dances, two things I’ve never been able to stop doing. An old dance instructor saw some of my work and asked if I’d heard of the artist Francesca Woodman. I hadn’t, but this instructor and I had similar aesthetics, so I went to the library and checked out everything they had on Woodman: two books and a diary. I sat on my floor and read for hours, and kept crying on and off. Francesca had been with me, even during periods where I felt so isolated, so lost. I felt as if I was just beginning to wake up.
Sensitive, emotional, delicate: I have been called all of these things. Usually, it’s a beratement; an implicit too decorates each of these adjectives. This used to make me feel rotten. As a person who lives with depression, it’s an insult that has been imprinted into my brain, and something that I used to revisit again and again, spiraling down until there wasn’t too much further for me to go. It was at such an incredibly low point in my life that Woodman entered my life, and she hasn’t left since.
Woodman’s work is shot in black and white, which adds to its gothic quality; many of her pieces show bodies in motion, giving them a surreal, ghostly quality. The most commonly used body in Woodman’s photography is her own. Halfway through that first look at Woodman’s work, I turned to an image and froze. There she was in an eerily similar pose to the one I’d captured from the music video. She’s pictured in a dress in a room with two doors, and her arms are raised. She looks unapologetically at the camera. But perhaps the most eerie thing about the photo is not even our similar positioning: it’s the fact that we look extraordinarily alike.
Even looking at the picture now, I feel a bit woozy. And to be honest, I also feel a bit silly. Have I been imagining this connection? It’s possible. But there’s so many more ways in which Francesca continues to reappear in my life. Too many, I think, for it to be a series of coincidences.
I recently moved into the apartment of one of my dance mentor’s friends in New York. One of the first pieces of advice my landlady gave me before she left town was, “While you’re walking, look down. I always find money in the East Village, always.” And of course, she was right.
On my first night in the new apartment, I slept terribly. New York is noisy, and the East Village is especially so. The next morning, I sat in bed for a bit before getting up. I turned to my left and examined the bookshelf I was too busy to search through the night before. Right behind where I slept I saw the spine of a thick, hardcover book. Francesca Woodman. I pulled it out and there she was, crouched, in a polka dot dress. And of course, inside of the pages, the photograph of her in the room with two doors was waiting for me.
I didn’t read the forward of the book until weeks later, after I found a ten dollar bill on 12th. Many people believe that when you find money, it’s a deceased person’s way of reaching out to you. I don’t disagree. Francesca’s studio was on the same block.
Not only am I now living in the city where Francesca was last alive, I reside within two blocks of the location of her studio. She’s here, she’s haunting me, and I’m unafraid. I welcome her just as she’s been welcoming me.
Aside from my personal connection to Woodman, her work is everywhere now. Exhibits at the Guggenheim, Tate, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and many others keep springing up, so it may have only been a matter of time before I encountered her. Even so, I believe she’s been appearing at a frequency and in ways that are intimate and slightly unnerving, perhaps for a purpose: to tell me to keep living, to keep making.
I’m no longer ashamed to be a delicate thing. I’m embracing it. I get to feel, and I’m looking forward to continuing to do so. In the words with which my good friend once consoled, I “get to feel.” Everyone should be so lucky.
Lead image: Francesca Woodman, self-portrait, 1979-80.
Inset image #1 courtesy of the author.
Inset image #2: Francesca Woodman, untitled, 1975–1976.
Inset image #3: Cover of 2011 book Francesca Woodman; photograph is detail from “Polka Dots.”
Inset image #4: “Woman with Large Plate, Rome, 1978.” (Portrait of Francesca Woodman.) Photo by Stephan Brigidi.