JTF (just the facts): A total of 29 black and white and color photographs, framed in cream wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room space in the back of the gallery. 25 of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made in Providence, Rome, and New York between 1975 and 1979. Physical sizes range from roughly 3×4 to 9×12. The 4 color works are vintage chromogenic prints, made in New York in 1979-1980. Physical sizes for these prints range between roughly 3×4 and 7×7. A catalog (entitled Francesca Woodman: Another Almost Square, A Fashion Photograph) has been published in conjunction with the show. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: In the last few years of Francesca Woodman’s life, she began experimenting with an unlikely project – extending her inward looking, fiercely personal aesthetic into the realm of fashion photography. Given the more elusively narrative and seductively open ended images that were consistently showing up in Vogue in the late 1970s (made by Deborah Turbeville, Helmut Newton and others), the thought that she could potentially jump genres (and take advantage of the economic positives of more commercial endeavors) doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea. All she had to do was exchange the intensely real melancholy mood of her work for a put on substitute, removing herself as the main subject and inserting a series of fashion models in artfully styled gowns and accessories. She didn’t even need to change venues; her empty decaying rooms decorated with peeling paint and rotting furniture would work just fine for her brand of fashion photography.
This show meticulously tracks Woodman’s fashion efforts, largely grouping her different attempts and ideas by subject matter. She explores the contours and transparencies of textiles, using light and shadow to highlight folds of drapery and the sheen of lingerie. She tries out stoles and furs as a central prop, draping them around necks and hanging them on walls, always choosing ones with legs and feet that uncomfortably pull the mood back toward eerie taxidermy. She recalibrates scenes by focusing on the rooms themselves, with models in long gowns dragging fabric along burned walls or perching on a broken piano; an odd chair, a floor full of debris, an empty corner, and a row of worn theater seats all set the stage for uneasy shadowy poses. She ventures outside, trying out models awkwardly sitting on massive stone lions and lying near an image of running wolves. And she even explores color, using the geometric edges of a doorway and a large mirror to create spatial dissonance around the curves of her own bent body.
The self-deprecating scrawled captions on a several of her early attempts point to her own understanding of the conscious switch going on – “this photograph is more fashion than that one” and the show’s title “I’m trying my hand at fashion photography”. Not only does she know that she is actively trying out the various tropes and motifs of fashion photography, but she also knows that doesn’t quite have it working perfectly just yet. There are moments of sinuous, fragile elegance here to be sure, but also a knowing twinkle in the eye that seems to admit something is often off. While Woodman may indeed have had an interest in fashion and certainly had her own distinct sense of personal style, her frustration leaks in – it’s not easy to remove the fullness of searching inside yourself and replace it with the emptiness of staged scenes without the whole endeavor feeling like playacting or going through the motions.
The fact that her fashion photographs mimic her signature aesthetic but never quite deliver the emotional resonance that makes her other work so confident/vulnerable doesn’t in any way diminish their interest as artifacts of Woodman’s life. The fashion pictures open up a side of the artist we haven’t seen much of – the one who was fascinated by and aware of an adjacent genre, who wouldn’t have minded being paid, and who was willing to experiment with modifying her approach to make it more commercially palatable. We usually see Woodman characterized by the fervor of her independent personal spirit, and yet here we see her making a few compromises. To my eye, the pictures make her seem less mythological and more human, a more typically talented and curious young artist struggling to make her way in the world.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $60000 each, or are NFS. Woodman’s work has been more consistently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with more significant activity in the past year or two following her successful traveling retrospective. Vintage gelatin silver prints have ranged from roughly $4000 to $173000 in recent years, with some posthumous prints likely filtering into the data at the low end.