Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York, 1979. Gelatin silver print, 5 3/4 × 5 3/4 inches (14.6 × 14.6 cm). Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Courtesy George and Betty Woodman. © Francesca Woodman
The sensitive and intensely personal self-portraits Francesca Woodman made during her brief life provide a unique and complex meditation on female subjectivity. Despite her youth, the prolific photographer’s striking oeuvre shows an artist simultaneously engaging and defining the politics of her time. In spare yet lush images, Woodman used own body to construct ambiguous portraits set in austere interior environments. The decaying architecture of Woodman’s studio, which served as background in many of her works, lends her photographs an air of isolation and experimentation. Subject to the anonymous gaze of the camera, she retains control of the mechanics of self-representation.
In Untitled, New York, Woodman leans against a rustic, weathered wall, left of center, with her back to the camera. Resting her head on her raised left arm, she holds a fish spine up to her exposed back with her right hand, echoing the line of her own spine. The layering of the artist’s body with that of the spindly fish bones creates a feeling of exposure and intimacy, as if both had been stripped to internal and essential qualities. The peeling of the decaying plaster wall reveals its inner structure, echoing the effect created by the fragile fish spine. Denying viewers a conventional likeness, Woodman’s self-portrait instead inspires rumination on the genre’s ability to reveal the unseen.
Untitled, York is a stunning photograph that bolsters the ICA/Boston’s collection of contemporary photography. Moreover, it enhances the photography collection’s strength in self-portraiture as a vehicle for artistic experimentation and identity politics. This work is in dialogue with that of other photographers in the collection, including Jimmy DeSana, Rineke Dijkstra, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, and others.