From "The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman", by Elizabeth Gumport
"In order to avoid making her suicide the climax of the film, which would mean once again presenting it as central to her life and work, Willis frames Woodman’s story with that of her parents. The Woodmans begins and ends with Betty and George discussing their own work, in particular a sculpture Betty was commissioned to produce for the American Embassy in Beijing, and whose progress Willis tracks throughout the film. Its installation is at once triumphant and bittersweet. The elder Woodmans often feel their reputations depend on their daughter’s—as if, as Betty puts it, “she’s the famous artist and we’re the famous artist’s family.” George recalls that Woodman killed herself a few days before the opening of his own Guggenheim show.
The Woodmans dispenses with the image some may have of the young photographer as a tortured naif, whose suffering was uncorrupted by ambition or the desire to do anything besides disappear.
Francesca cultivated her reputation and knew, as her friend Betsy Berne wrote, “how to play the game.” Having artists for parents, one friend informs Willis, made success seem imperative, and obscurity particularly painful. It was necessary, she told her father, to make at least one career-related phone call every day. The process of creating a coherent public image is explored in her journal, where she often referred to herself in the third person. In one 1975 entry, she mentions having shown the journal to a friend. “Does it,” she writes, “read as a book one wonders.”
Woodman’s interest in self-presentation—and self-preservation—emerges even in a note written around the time of her first suicide attempt. “I finally managed,” she explains, “to try to do away with myself, as neatly and concisely as possible…. I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with you, and some other artifacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.” Woodman reverses the traditional terms of the arrangement: death, like photography, is simply a series of chemical reactions. Living is “erasing”; dying a way of ensuring that what was will continue to be, of fixing certain things in place. When Woodman died, she left behind an unpublished artist’s book, a set of five images, called Portrait of a Reputation. "
"...Woodman reveals the injuries that occur in the time it takes to produce a single picture: hair turns wispy, flesh fades and stretches into smoke. The longer her shutter stays open, the blurrier and more transparent bodies will appear, until at last they disappear. Shortly before her death, she began experimenting with a particularly long development process that required her to spend several hours producing a single photograph. In the end, her camera captures not the girl but the long moment it looked at her."
The Woodmans is showing at Film Forum in New York through February 1.
P.Z. West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
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