by Tracy Bealer
While watching the 2010 documentary The Woodmans, I was reminded of the Yeats poem “Among School Children,” where he posits the seemingly unanswerable question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” And the movie left me with some questions, of various answerability, of my own. The film centers on the surviving family of avant-garde photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of twenty-two.
Woodman’s body of work includes thousands of black and white images, many of herself, which focus on the female body in various stages of undress. The prints are exposed so as to make the figures seem ethereal, blurred, or otherwise impermanent. Woodman’s lack of early success as an artist, along with her documented struggles with depression, are a few of the narratives her family and friends offer for her suicide in the series of interviews that comprise the documentary. The film is, thankfully, less an attempt to “explain” Woodman’s death and more an investigation of how art and love can heal an unfathomable loss. (Both of Woodman’s parents, along with her brother, are also visual artists.).
Woodman’s mother Betty, a well-known ceramics sculptor, mentions her frustration with devotees of her daughter’s work who insist upon a biographical interpretation of the photographs, insisting that Francesca was most healthy when she was creating, and ceased taking pictures in the months leading up to her death. However, it is difficult to look at the images of Woodman produced of her naked body, distorted and vulnerable, and not imagine she was revealing something of her troubled mind. Read more