21 January 2012

'I'm in the photograph'

My housemate left sweet treats on my bed in exchange for reading his essay on the use of pronouns as spatial metaphors in Italian postmodern literature. I had scribbled exclamatory remarks and circled commas in purple ink, and for this I received a French Pepsi Max and a snickers. My absolute favourite things to eat and drink. I was pleased as punch.

While he studies European languages, literature and films, I am both loving and loathing being without classes, reading lists, essays and writing about the minutiae of some poem or other that lies on the sidelines of most sane, normal and levelheaded people's realities. So I develop little obsessions, consciously or otherwise. My current obsession is Francesca Woodman. She was an American photographic artist, creating works thirty years ago. Her black and white images are often described as surreal, which I can understand, but they are also hyper-real and raw. They appeal to me because they are so so seventies, romantic, with shades of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Woodman was the daughter of two artists, had a spell at a boarding school, often stayed in her family's second home in Italy, studied in Rome for a time (where she made several sequences of images), and then lived in New York. Covetable life aesthetics right there. Her photographs are all forests, graveyards, tombstones and long hair. Gothic and ghostly. More often than not they feature female nudes, like spectres or corpses, sometimes cropped, frequently Francesca herself. Real bodies, feminine and frank.

She was a dedicated journal writer, and she would often incorporate her images into the notes of her life. Spiky writing scratches the surrounding margins of stuck-down photographs. 'Bunny bun I'm in the photograph come fetch me if the mood or a rock should strike you'. A message to her boyfriend Benjamin.

from the Tate Collections website
Naturally I would not be so obsessed if there was no darkness or tragedy involved. A suicide attempt in 1980 was followed by a period of psychotherapy and medication and recovery. Then she was refused a grant she was hoping for, her bicycle was stolen, and her romance with Benjamin continued to sour. She jumped from a roof in New York, aged 22. Her body remained unclaimed at the morgue until someone identified her clothes, as the fall had rendered her face unrecognisable. Her body had been used in so many of her photographs as something interesting and beautiful, captured forever in light. Yet she destroyed it, made herself unidentifiable. One of her early images features a Victorian tombstone bearing the words 'To Die is Gain'. Hmmm.

I am currently watching a documentary about Francesca and her family, made in 2010, on youtube. Stuff of obsession.

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