Photography, like abstract art to some degree, poses difficulties for the critic in assessing value or beauty, beyond that of the image's appeal in itself. Some argue that the only important thing is how the viewer relates to it and does the work somehow alter their worldview or aesthetic. The background story, or intent of the artist, should not necessarily impact on the evaluation, but of course it does. And the history or inspiration of a picture or painting is occasionally more interesting than the work itself, in fact sometimes threatens to overshadow it. Art does not live in a vacuum. Recently I was introduced to the startling and beautiful images of tragic Francesca Woodman, who in a short time as a young woman produced a riveting body of work that influences photographers today. The daughter of artists, including a celebrated ceramicist mother, at age 22 she took her life, and like so many in any genre cut down prematurely, one wonders how that act deprived the world of genius, of images that could have changed humanity (and with art, it seems to me, always for the better). Of course, one can never know and can only judge what was actually contributed and left behind. Retrospective exhibits, the documentary The Woodmans, as well as printed collections such as Chris Townsend's Francesca Woodman, provide art lovers with an opportunity to see a small sampling of the images she produced (reportedly more than 10,000 taken over the span of around five years).
Not having much of a photography background, I sometimes wonder about the art of it, if photographers are rewarded more for taking a beautiful shot or for recognizing the most impressive shots out of hundreds they took on any one day. Is creation as much accidental as effort? I suppose this is true for almost any art. . .how many poems are thrown away, or repeatedly altered? How many canvases painted over or destroyed, the most appealing left hopefully in the hands of the reverent? Lyricists and musicians produce hundreds, even thousands, of songs, yet may only garner one hit. Not every artist, of course, but even the most celebrated ones seem to produce a pile of. . .well, shall we say that there are few masterpieces in the overall body of artistic endeavor. Abstract art is particularly open to this criticism, me thinks.
What I have seen of Woodman's photographs is amazing. I don't like all of it, but the body of work is remarkable, black and white images that capture the eye and draw the viewer in. Although commentators often focus on her nude images (both of herself and models), I don't feel that they were intentionally erotic, but an attempt to juxtapose a youthful, fresh, clean beauty against a decaying world, a darker existence; she seems to want to capture darkness, to strip the image to basic elements, and this often required nudity. Her subjects are often blurred, or covered by torn wallpaper, other photographs, or masks. Her backgrounds are uniformly consistent: old abandoned rooms with peeling paint and plaster, raw unfinished denuded walls, water stains and corrupted corners, floors cluttered with the detritus of years, brick and masonry exposed to the elements. I can almost imagine her scouting through neighborhoods looking for abandoned buildings or dusty attics, chasing out squatters for a moment so she can capture an image. It is a wonder she didn't use more dead animals, or that she didn't take pictures of the poor or street people. She clearly enjoyed experimenting with shadows and angles. Her blurred visions are almost spectral. Mirrors are often an important element. So much of the work seems to be saying, "Come look at me, come see how I am playing with light, learning, growing." Alas, it is almost heartbreaking to think of how amazing her work would have been in her more mature hand.
Some images stand out for me, and they are not the nudes (as lovely as she was). Francesca sitting next to a boyfriend, his face blurred by a sudden movement seems to bespeak of her dissatisfaction with love (though it may originally have been just one image culled from a series). Francesca dressed in black, looking like a widowed Italian woman, the only hint of ornament the trim along the edge of her neckline, her hands, made to look weather worn by shadows laid out in the crease formed by her thighs, her face and eyes seeming wary, elusive, sad. Francesca dressed in a nightshirt hanging Jesus-like from a door frame with a black chair in the forefront, the black and white tiles contrasting against the white walls. Her shadow series, made by blowing flour over her body leaving a dark outline of her shape, as if her camera had been an atomic blast.