Artists who choose to make themselves the subject of their work are obvious targets for the charge of narcissism while figurative personal elements in their work militate against the subtleties of ambiguity. Francesca Woodman, an exhibition of whose photographs opened today at the Victoria Miro gallery in London, was able to avoid these pitfalls. This is, perhaps, why I have always been a fan of her photography.
In this new exhibition the Victoria Miro Gallery is showing 25 of Woodman's photographs, ten newly-released from the artist's archive of over 800 images, around the figurative theme of the 'ZigZag'; most are small (10 x 8") square photographs, beautifully mounted in mid-grey frames while two large sepia-toned images offer composite ensembles of zigzag effects which Woodman herself described as '...a long string of images held together by a long compositional zigzag, thus the corner of a building in one frame fits into the elbow of a girl in the next frame into a book in the third frame'. She went on to describe these photographs as 'very personal mysterious ones and harsh images of outdoor city life'.
Born in 1958 In Denver, Colorado, Francesca Woodman lived and worked in New York until her early death in 1981 and has been exhibited widely since. Her work is often described as containing surreal and symbolic imagery but the use of recurring compositional motifs is equally present. Certainly, her photographs are immediately recognisable: Woodman herself features in the majority of her images and the mise-en-scène almost always comprises deserted houses, bare floorboards and walls with only sparse use of other objects within the frame. Within this minimal palette of elements, Woodman's skill as a photographer allowed her to create images which set out as realistic representation but which quickly shade into ambiguity without one really noticing when the shift occurred. And here precisely lies her skill in the medium: without the advantages of digital post-production techniques, Woodman's handing of the camera as a tool of both representation and ambiguity represents the hugely impressive core of her art.
The starting point for many of Woodman's projects was often a representational or graphical figure - bridges, tiaras and - in the case of this exhibition - the ZigZag. Combining this point of departure with (in most cases) her own body within the frame, we start with what appears to be a representational image. Adroitly deploying the graphical theme, in many of these photographs the artist's body is set against the fall of light or form of another object to create a zigzag figure. Sometimes Woodman's arms or legs create the shape; in other images, her body is combined with material ot lighting to form a zigzag. All the photographs are superbly handled and many show an acute yet delicate use of light.
Yet these are not mere representational photographs. In each, an element of ambiguity creeps in. Sometimes an insertion in the image seems to distort our perception - perhaps a diamond or square shape comprised of material, a blurred element within an otherwise sharply-focused image or perhaps a piece of pure surrealism as with a door floating in mid-air. In every case though these insertions undermine the reality of the images, introducing a sense of indeterminacy. We seem to be looking at the real world - a real figure in an all-too-real desolate setting - without being able to grasp the reality of the scene. Woodman's approach is unsettling, throwing us off balance as we struggle to understand the reality of the scene presented to us.
If Woodman herself is the subject of all her photographs - whether or not she appears in each, although she does in the majority - we have no sense of the narcissism of the performance artist. Look through all these photographs and we observe or sense her presence; but we do not know her. Her face is usually excluded from the frame. When it appears, it is more than half-hidden by her hair, material of some other object. The ambiguity is compounded and Woodman avoids the ultimate trap of resolving the image into herself through the zigazg - an ambiguous graphical device, seemingly rhythmically flux without a sense of resolution.
Victoria Miro Mayfair, 14 St. George Street, London, W1S 1FE. Exhibition runs 9 September to 4 October 2014