It occurs to me now, when my baby is twenty years old, that I must have had some kind of attenuated extended postpartum melancholy that whole time, the year or two after he was born. We were living in relative isolation outside of Rockland, and I’d drive us around looking for beautiful things—a beach, a library, a forest, a museum—places where conversation didn’t matter. Because whatever else one might say about infants, they don’t talk much. On such a journey, we found Francesca Woodman’s photography, in an exhibit at Bowdoin College called The Disembodied Spirit. The exquisite exhibit was mainly 19th-century spirit photography, a subgenre of photography that attempted to prove the existence of ghosts. Spiritualism’s adherents believed that photographs could show the disembodied spirits of the departed. The exhibit also included Francesca Woodman’s photograph Self-Portrait Talking to Vince, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975–1978.
Woodman was alive and not disembodied in her many self-portraits, or self-referential photographs. But she extended photography’s capacity to blur the line between material object and light. The images in her Angels series are at times violent and this is part of what makes her work important, its play of light and grit, of brilliance and dirt. Her photographs carry to an unusual extent the force of pathos and pang that theorists of photography from Jerry L. Thompson to Roland Barthes recognize as photography’s genius. Her photographs make us want to save something that we also see is already lost.
“Is that lost thing Woodman herself?” is a question worth asking as she is known almost as much for her youthful suicide as for her extraordinary art. But I don’t think what Woodman’s photographs ask us to try to save is the artist herself. The photographs are too fully committed to adumbrating the strangeness of light, the transient and endless rain of light across the heavy material objects that we inhabit and are. The photographs ask how we—any of us—make it through the endless doorways of this bright world.
In this image Untitled, from Angels, Rome, Italy, Woodman invests the regressive space through an open doorway with symbolic forms that break the fourth wall between image and viewer. She plays tropes of vanishing (human forms covered so we cannot see them) with tropes of appearing (those very same human forms obviously are present in the image). The door frame that collects and delivers the image to us doubles the frame of the photographic image which is defined by its boundaries. The place where the photograph (any photograph) stops is a harder line than the place where the painting or sculpture or textile work stops, because a photograph is literally a cut, an image cut from the unending field of the visible.
In Woodman’s photograph from Untitled, from Angels, Rome, Italy, we see two possibly female people respectively holding up a large semi-translucent sheathe of either paper or cloth and a small opaque object of unknown material. Only two feet, one hand, and shadows are visible of the human beings. Their partial absence is articulated by the emphatic presence of the doorway (behind which the human forms are partially obscured), and the radiator, the walls, the polished floor. That is, the architectural world and the world of art as frame around the human are all clearly presented. But at the center, at the heart, the human is almost missing, almost hidden.
The playfulness of the image tugs at the melancholia of the scene, as it honors and critiques art as framed artifact (in traditional Western pictorial practice). Someone is moving rapidly to hold the semi-translucent sheathe/sheet aloft and upright. In that person’s shadowy and energetic kinesthesia the surge of human subjectivity is held. This person seems almost to move toward us with a sidelong gyrating turn, impressing their body against the fluent material that hides them. The second person neatly vanishes behind a compact door-like form that echoes and makes light of the large architectural door frame that frames the image. The hand reaching from behind the solid white rectangle seems playfully to reach for a door handle, but no handle is there. There is no way out, no path away, from the state of embodied perception that is the locus of Woodman’s photographs’ searches for form’s edge.
A heavy shadow joins the space beyond the framing doorway and the space before it, the shadow like a curtain in an old-fashioned theater draws the two spaces together, the exterior and interior, before and after, excluded and included, warm radiator and cold light. The blurred figure carrying the semi-translucent sheathe becomes almost inhuman as the photograph catches their movement exaggerating their hand to a kind of claw, their arm to a wing. They come toward us and also stay irrevocably unreachable, a signifier of late afternoon’s unreachable loneliness and the urge to push through our absences from each other, to connect through the paper and frame of art. The sharp dark lines of the floor’s tesserae floor pattern further articulate this sense in the photograph that we know presence through the very devices of framing that make us feel absence. We know presence where it is cut by form and form is created by something taken away.
With my child now nearly an adult I worry about the early years of isolation, not that it was ever chosen or purposeful but that it was potent; I worry it established a normalcy to standing back from the world, a habit of seeing rather than entering the world of presence. But absence is only visible when defined against presence and a presence of those days was a mother, played with care by me, who unlike my own mother never abandoned her child. So maybe they are balanced, absence and presence.
A month ago, by happenstance I met one of Woodman’s cousins. She looked so much like Francesca it was uncanny (after writing two books on the photography of Woodman, Woodman’s face is one I know better than the faces of some of my own family members). The dialectic of presence and absence is never decisively over. The partially hidden figure in the photograph moves towards us but we cannot see it entirely, it cannot give itself to us beyond the frame. The figure crouched behind the opaque white rectangle might unfold and stand up, revealing itself but that will not happen in the unending stop-time of the image. Here, the small door-like rectangle will always be closed and without a handle and the large “real” door will always be open, ushering us into the dance of absence and presence that Woodman makes angelic. The message (since angels are messengers) of the image is Woodman’s characteristically sharp understanding of the painful beauty of this space-time realm that we so transiently inhabit.
Image at top: Francesca Woodman, From Angel Series, Rome, Italy, gelatin silver print, 9.30 x 9.30 cm, 1977 (photo: © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York).