Conversations with the Collection | Staff Insights on Francesca Woodman

Being so close to the artworks every day, our Security and Visitor Services team have a unique relationship with our collection. Colleagues from this team have written creative responses to an artwork or artist of their choosing from this display. These personal pieces aim to open up different ways of seeing our collection. This blog was written by Olga Pypno on Untitled (FW Crouching Behind Umbrella) by American artist Francesca Woodman.

Slowing Down Time

Whenever I look at Francesca Woodman’s photographs, they give me the impression of a paused scene trying to delay what is coming next.

Recurring motifs suggesting the passage of time, movement, and her desire to seize the moment appear throughout Woodman’s work. These moments, like ghostly apparitions, often go unnoticed. Woodman’s body of work attempts to guide the audience towards them, giving the viewer time to reflect.

Francesca Woodman Untitled, Concord, New Hampshire 1977 © Woodman Family Foundation. Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2023
Francesca Woodman Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island 1975 - 1978 © Woodman Family Foundation. Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2023

She achieves this by using long exposure shots and creating contrast between shadow and light, so that the photographs appear blurred and almost smudged – like the strokes of a paintbrush. This long exposure allows us to see a point in time unfolded, rather than a mere snapshot. There is defined movement in her images, which we are invited to follow like a map, tracing each step. This map promises an answer at the end of the journey, but always disappears before we reach it.

Woodman tried to hold on to each fleeting moment, knowing deep down that, with every step, a part of her was slowly fading away. I feel incredibly privileged to have gotten a glimpse into Woodman’s mind and art through her body of almost 800 photographs, and yet it pains me to think about how much further she would have pushed the ideas she explored through her art.

Throughout her work, Woodman explores themes of domesticity and how they apply to a space of work, like an artist’s studio. By blending herself into her surroundings, she becomes one with the space she occupies. Her compositions don’t differentiate the sitter from the umbrella or the kettle. The photographs, although self-portraits, don’t share a lot of information about the artist, but rather focus on the space they occupy; the same space that remains when we are no longer here. Woodman invites us inside her studio, but by doing so distracts us from her own presence in the image.

Francesca Woodman Untitled About 1980 © Woodman Family Foundation. Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2023

The domestic reality within her work prompts us to consider our own surroundings and how we inhabit them. The photograph, Untitled (FW Crouching Behind Umbrella), about 1980, features a needle and thread, a kettle, a ruler, and a pile of used rags. Together, these seemingly common and mundane objects present an image of daily life – an homage to a woman’s craft. These ordinary items, which offer us a glimpse into her domestic routines, are all that remains. At first, the self-portrait may appear as if it’s obscuring the subject. However, the fading traces of movement together with the artist’s routine and habits form an intimate glimpse into a person and their identity.

As I am writing this, at 22, the same age as Francesca Woodman when she ended her life, I feel connected to her. A different continent and several decades separate us, and yet her work has stood the passage of time and engraved itself into history, in a way achieving the very thing her images strived to do.

By Olga Pypno, 27 January 2023