Francesca Stern Woodman was born in Boulder, CO in 1958 to artists Betty and George Woodman. She went to the Rhode Island School of Design for photography from 1975-1979 and attended RISD's European Honors Program in Rome, Italy from 1977-78. In 1979 after graduating and attending an artists residency at MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire she moved to New York City to pursue a career in fashion photography. After struggling with depression and difficulties finding work and gallery representation, and following a broken relationship, she committed suicide by jumping off a building in the East Village on January 19th 1981. She had just published her first book "Some Disordered Interior Geometries" and was a couple of months away from her 23rd birthday.
In her short life as an artist she produced some of the most powerfully expressive photographs that transcended the understanding of the medium of photography at that time, and still do today. Her haunting black and white images focus on the inner forces of the subject's psychological state and it's relationship to the photographer, often one in the same. Francesca used herself as her model, mainly because "it's a matter of convenience" she said. In her pictures she would push the boundaries of space and the continuity of time. She played with the idea of pleasure and pain, sensuality and starkness. Francesca was heavily inspired by the surrealist movement, Victorian gothic, post-minimalism, conceptual and feminist body art of the 70's, poetry, and young intellectuals she met in Rome during her one year stay there. She also admired the work of photographers Deborah Turbeville and Duane Michals. Many of her photographs were printed haphazardly, crooked on the paper with phrases or poems scribbled at the bottom amongst ink blots and fingerprints.
She would turn herself into an apparition or a statue and use her body to communicate restlessness and anxiety, as if performing an exorcism or conjuring spirits. She'd render herself fading into the wall or the floor, hiding behind wallpaper in a delapidated room, as if playing a game of hide and seek with the camera. Through all the intensity and darkness in her photographs there is also a sense of humor, an "I got you," that you sometimes don't see until the 3rd or 4th time you look.
When she wasn't using a self timer or a cable release to photograph herself she'd often have her best friend, model, and collaborator Sloan Rankin trigger the shutter. Sloan was Francesca's creative partner in crime. They'd go on treasure hunts together searching for vintage clothing, props, and locations to use in the photographs. In photographs, their bodies were interchangeable. Sloan was her doppelganger; like Francesca, she was often covered in flour, paint, vaseline, jello or some other material meant to enhance a certain technique or idea. Most of the time you couldn't tell them apart because they were reduced to motion blurs or their identity was obscured by hair or shadows.
Here are some pictures where Sloan is more visible as Sloan...
Sloan is on the far left, Francesca on the far right. They are all holding pictures of Francesca's face.
Sloan and Francesca in Rome
In one of her final letters to Sloan in November of 1980, Francesca wrote "I do have standards and my life at this point is like very old coffeecup sediment and I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, i.e. some work, my friendship with you, some other artifacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things."
Self-Portrait with birth certificate
portrait of the artist in her studio on North Main in Providence, RI by George Lange