Dialogue with Francesca Woodman

The well person has the job of translating the images that the sick person has left behind as evidence.

Esmé Weijun Wang is an essayist and the author of The Border of Paradise: A Novel, published by Unnamed Press in April 2016. Her work has appeared in...

Photograph by Esmé Weijun Wang

Francesca, when did you discover that you were an ambitious woman?

When did you realize that this would make your life as an artist even harder than it would be otherwise?

The height of my Woodman obsession occurred when I was much younger than 22, the age at which Francesca Woodman had jumped from a window and died. By the time I went to see her photography in person, I was 28. I visited the SF MOMA’s Francesca Woodman retrospective—the most comprehensive exhibition of her work to that point—in early 2012. It was the winter in which I was involuntarily hospitalized during a holiday visit to Louisiana. It was the winter in which I was in an outpatient program in San Francisco while trying to keep my full-time job.

Woodman is most known for the self-portraiture that she created as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Common motifs include nudity, reflections, blurred motion, and the decrepit settings of her House series. She is under things and behind things, part of the scenery (wallpaper, fireplace), distorted and pale. It’s hard to see her face. At the exhibition, I was surprised to hear her recorded voice, which was unmemorable to me, and there was video, which I hadn’t been expecting; prior to the retrospective, Woodman existed for me only as a wraith in black-and-white. In the exhibit—held in a sterile museum environment, with standard white walls and plenty of empty space—she came across as cannily ambitious, and fully aware of her own gifts.

“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” writes Susan Sontag (On Photography). I could look at Woodman’s carefully managed self-portraiture as a way to suss out what lies below the surface of her images, and in particular, to try and uncover where one can spot the threads of her suicide, like gold glinting in an otherwise dull tapestry. Suicide demands a narrative, but rarely, if ever, gives one. “Teen Kills Self After Parents Forbid Black Nail Polish,” read one puzzling headline from my childhood. Why black nail polish? Why suicide? I didn’t understand the self-destructive impulse then, but I did later. At fifteen, I kept a list in the back of my journal titled Reasons to Kill Myself, perhaps because I understood that a single reason was insufficient. According to one newspaper, Woodman jumped because she was frustrated by her lack of recognition: “Young Genius Kills Self After Provincetown Rejection.”

She was always, her friend Giuseppe Gallo tells us, single-mindedly thinking about photography. Never distracted. “…Every moment of Francesca’s life,” he said, “was in preparation for a photograph.” One is more easily prepared with an always-ready model, for what subject is more available for exploration than the self?

Francesca, what do you think of these photographs?

Do you see what I was trying to do?

I was trying to make myself more real.

During one psychotic episode, without a strict concept of myself or of the world around me, I coped by shooting with an SX-70 Polaroid and a Contax T2 camera. It was essential that the process involved physical film. Even better, instant film meant a tangible and immediate result.

Again, from On Photography: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” To take a photograph, in other words, is to participate in one’s own reality, to be a true member in the world of things. I taped a photograph to my wall; the photograph, which is of the back of my own head, surprised me because I’d forgotten about the birthmark on my neck—a dark brown and smudgy spot exposed by my chronically short hair. To have that mark turn up in a photograph was evidence of a self I remembered. I hadn’t, in my psychosis, forged the proof that I was the woman everyone else claimed me to be. After all, the birthmark is a classic signifier of identity. In the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Master-Thief,” it’s the bean-shaped birthmark on his shoulder that convinces the master-thief’s parents that their son has returned. Even more fundamentally, a birthmark implies that I was once born. A birthmark signifies one’s entrance into the world.

Self-portraiture provided a certain notion of myself. Almost all of the self-portraits I take during severe and prolonged psychosis are blurry and out of focus. Unlike Woodman, I don’t try to create this effect, which happens because I must estimate an accurate focus before extending my arms in front of my face. The self-portraits are blurry; they are difficult to parse; they capture facial expressions that make me cringe to see later, in lucidity, because I don’t recognize them, and because they are ugly in their attempt to approximate grins. When I examine them now, I wonder why. Why did I cover my face with my hand? Why the grimace? Who is that performance meant for? Jackson Pollock said, “I am interested in expressing, not illustrating, my emotions, ” but I look at those pictures and see anything but expression. Instead, there is an approximation, or an illustration, of what I believed an emotion should be.

Other self-portraits are shadows—my shadow rising against a hot wall by the butcher’s, or against a sweater slung over the back of a chair. My mother-in-law told me one Christmas, after another episode of psychosis, that I reminded her of Peter Pan. “You’ve just lost your shadow,” she said, “and you’ll find a way to stitch it back to your foot.” I marveled at the congruency between that familiar story and the belief that the soul leaves through one’s feet. I wondered if I’d literally lost my soul as I photographed the silhouetted marks that my body left on the world. The body was there, but something else was missing.

Photography is a tool for my sick self to believe in what exists. Photography is a tool for my well self to re-experience the loss. It is a bridge, or a mizpah—a noun describing the emotional ties between people, and especially between people separated by distance or death—between one person and the other. The well person has the job of translating the images that the sick person has left behind as evidence.

There are perhaps a hundred photographs that I’ve taken in periods of psychosis. I’ve shown very few of them to other people. One winter’s worth of images are especially hard for me to sort through, and I consider those photographs to be a peculiar example of what memory can, and cannot, accomplish. I look at those images of the Christmas tree farm, and am immediately thrust back into that place and that time. The anxiety that pervaded those days returns. My body reacts with a fist in the solar plexus and tingling extremities; it re-experiences not the psychosis, but the terror that came with the psychosis, much in the way long-faded scars reemerge on my body under stress as ghostly memories made plain.

But there is much that I don’t remember of the wreckage; I only see it now because the woman from the land of illness snapped photographs as souvenirs and keepsakes, including portraits of my husband in which he is looking into the camera with exhaustion in his thick-lashed eyes and the strangeness of unkempt facial hair. I can’t bear to look at them anymore—I don’t need to, because I can see, without looking, the despair in his face. I interpret those pictures as a message of something that I couldn’t see at the time: a missive delivered via the impartial camera, delivered from an external source that wanted me to see how my illness had damaged the great love of my life.

I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with you, and some other artifacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things. (Said Francesca in a letter.)

But Francesca, what would obliterate those things in life?

She was twenty-two when she jumped. Critics speak of what she might have done if she’d lived. When an artist dies, the art that never was is often mourned with as much grief as—and often more than—the individual herself. The individual, after all, was flesh-and-blood; it’s the art that’s immortal. Yet Woodman’s body of work, experienced in a museum setting, feels abbreviated. You walk through the final room and exit expecting more.

What did Woodman mean when she suggested the destruction of work, accomplishments, friendships, the “pell-mell” erasure of those things called “delicate”? Beautiful things can be destroyed because they’re obliterated by something else: the ordinariness of an artist’s life eclipsed by her manner of death. The obliteration can also be gradual. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” quoted Kurt Cobain in his suicide note. He was a twenty-seven-year-old rock star when he shot himself, but his death made him an icon. Woodman and Cobain are frequently described as geniuses.

Are you in danger of harming yourself or others?

Do you have a plan?

During my stint as a lab manager in the Stanford psychology department, I was trained in the clumsy art of creating a suicide contract with potential or current subjects. Our contracts were printed on half-sheets of white paper. The subject-to-be had to agree to not harm themselves. The subject-to-be had to also agree to dial 911 if they felt in imminent danger of harming themselves. I never had to create such an agreement with anyone, but I did wonder about its effectiveness. Was the suicide contract for our behalf, or for theirs? Were we simply trying to feel as though we were doing something?

I once attended a San Francisco City Hall meeting in which those present were debating whether or not to install a “suicide net” beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The documentary The Bridge, released in 2006, follows a year of suicides and suicide attempts occurring from that iconic bridge—twenty-four known suicides in all, and many more attempts. A common argument against the net had to do with the aesthetics of the bridge, the silhouette that would be hampered by a clumsy net. I was in favor of the net, but have no idea of whether or not its installation will result in fewer suicides in San Francisco, or even fewer incidents of bridge-jumping in particular. I’d convinced a member of the board to become pro-net by saying that because the bridge represented the possibility of suicide, its very existence therefore became a temptation. I compared it to my husband’s former desire for a gun in the house; if there were a gun in the house, it would be both a temptation and a convenience. In 2014, San Francisco voted on the installation of the nets, which would deter the suicidal and catch the attempted suicides.

By installing the net, the city is saying that it is doing something about the tragedies that occur there. The net is a sort of suicide contract: look, we installed a net; we’re holding up our end of the deal, so don’t try it.

The Bridge was inspired by a New Yorker article titled “Jumpers.” Francesca Woodman is a jumper, too. The lives that ended as a result of jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge are not the lives of famous people. They are not mourned publicly because of the loss of beautiful things that will never be created. No one writes in a magazine or newspaper that our culture is now less because those people have died.

Woodman insists in her letter that she would not like to pell-mell erase all of these delicate things. What remains of her life is, as she calls them, “artifacts,” because the life of breathing and heartbeats is the most delicate thing of all—which we all know, or all pretend to know.

I am older now than Francesca Woodman was when she died by at least a decade, and older than I was when I saw the exhibition of her work at the MOMA. I am still ambitious, but I must be careful about my ambition; illness has distorted my life such that it’s become hard to recognize as my own. On the phone recently with my insurance representative, I learned that any mental illness is called a “mental nervous condition” under my plan—I will no longer receive disability benefits because “mental nervous conditions” are eligible for 24 months at maximum. I marvel at how much illness I have experienced in those two years, how the self of four years ago would be appalled to see the limitations of my life. All I can do is try to create good works and pray to die peacefully. Francesca Woodman never has to watch her star fall, or to renegotiate her ideas of ambition, because she already faced her mortality, and is immortalized in her art.

Esmé Weijun Wang is an essayist and the author of The Border of Paradise: A Novel, published by Unnamed Press in April 2016. Her work has appeared in Salon, Catapult, The Believer, The New Inquiry, and Jezebel.