Performing the Interior: The Artist as Subject in the Photography of Francesca Woodman

Read the other posts in this series here.

On day three of our celebration of FotoWeekDC, we look at the enigmatically beautiful photography of artist Francesca Woodman on display in Shaping a Modern Identity: Portraits from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection.

Francesca Woodman first began her experiments with photography at the age of 15. Two years later, as a student at Rhode Island School of Design, she continued her exploration of black and white photography and film until she took her own life at the young age of 22.  Despite her short lifespan, Woodman was prolific, creating over 10,000 negatives in just 7 years.

Francesca Woodman, Providence, Rhode Island,  1975-76, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy George and Betty Woodman

Francesca Woodman, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-76, Gelatin silver print. Courtesy George and Betty Woodman.

Woodman’s Providence, Rhode Island is one of only two self-portraits in the installation. While Harry Callahan’s portrait of his wife Eleanor strove to achieve formal autonomy without an introspective look into his subject matter, Providence is an exploration of Woodman’s inner psyche. She perpetually looked to herself as the subject of her own works, using her body to convey her inner emotions and thoughts. Her admiration for the fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville shows in the lushly shadowed and textured scenes Woodman shot in an abandoned house in Providence, Rhode Island, where her own figure often blurs into a ghostly, dematerialized form. In Providence, Woodman navigates both past and present; she appears in prairie-style dress and shoots with medium-format film reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century, yet her disposition is urgent, contemporary. The camera captures her in the dilapidated interior in the midst of movement (seen in the blurred lines of the hem of her dress and her arms) with her arms eerily extended towards the doorway as she stares out at the viewer. The open door suggests a way out of this transient space, but it is unclear if the artist is willing to leave and whether or not her arms are beckoning the door open or closed. This early photograph demonstrates the performative quality of Woodman’s photo and video oeuvre in which the artist engages with her space, using her body to explore the environment around her as well as her internal state.

The Woman in the Water: Intimacy and Aesthetics in Harry Callahan’s “Eleanor, Chicago”

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For our second highlighted photograph from Shaping a Modern Identity: Portraits from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection as part of FotoWeekDC, we travel to the Midwest and the city of Chicago for an intimate portrait by Harry Callahan.

Harry Callahan, Eleanor, Chicago, 1949. Gelatin Silver Print. ©Estate of Harry Callahan and Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York

Harry Callahan, Eleanor, Chicago, 1949. Gelatin Silver Print. © The Estate of Harry Callahan, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

Callahan was one of the most innovative and influential photographers of the 20th century. Throughout his long career, he repeatedly found new ways of looking at and representing the world in photographs that are elegant, visually daring, and highly experimental. His carefully-constructed photographs explore a deep interest in formal visual elements, one which required a significant amount of time to perfect.

Callahan often turned to his wife, Eleanor, as the subject of his photography. “I never refused when he wanted to take a picture,” she once said. “I never complained, whatever I was doing. If he said: ‘Come quick, Eleanor — there’s a good light,’ I was right there.” In Eleanor, Chicago, the viewer observes Eleanor enigmatically, peacefully and mostly submerged in the waters of Lake Michigan, her eyes closed and her hair cascading down into the water. The strands join the ebb and flow of the current around her as the stark whiteness of her body blends into the water, seeming to want to engulf her completely. Her stark black hair is contrasted against her porcelain skin and the reflecting surface of the water provides an evocative formal composition. Although one could interpret this as an intimate moment captured by a husband of his wife, Callahan is more focused on the formal components of the image –composition, line, tones, etc.–instead of exploring the psychology of Eleanor.  Callahan carefully posed Eleanor with her eyes closed, preventing the viewer from sharing any direct, emotional contact with her. Although Eleanor is the anchor of the composition, Callahan removes the individuality from the portrait, eschewing sentimentality and familiarity to highlight the purely aesthetic.

Monumental, Heroic, and Homeless: Andres Serrano’s “Nomads (Sir Leonard)”

This week, we celebrate our partnership with FotoDC by highlighting 6 photographs from our new installation, Shaping a Modern Identity: Portraits from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. Drawn from the wide-ranging collection of Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg, the exhibition presents sixteen photographic portraits by a diverse group of modern photographers, including Tina Barney, Chuck Close, Imogene Cunningham, Walker Evans,  Andres Serrano, Edward Steichen, and Francesca Woodman, among others, along with an etching self-portrait by the legendary painter Lucien Freud.  This installation explores depictions of the famous and the anonymous, which enlarge our understanding of how portraiture is an invention forged between the artist and his or her subject.

Shaping a Modern Identity will be on view through January 12, 2014.

To kick things off, we begin with an artist who is no stranger to controversy and the subject of much discussion: Andres Serrano.

Andres Serrano, Nomads (Sir Leonard), 1990, Cibachrome print. © Andres Serrano

Andres Serrano, Nomads (Sir Leonard), 1990, Cibachrome print. Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. © Andres Serrano

Serrano has always thought of himself as an artist using photography, and not as a photographer, the distinction being that he is not interested in documenting ‘reality’, but in creating his own. In 1990, Serrano turned to the genre of portraiture, creating several thematic bodies of work, each depicting various social groups. The first of these was a series called “Nomads”, studio-style photographs of homeless individuals whom Serrano found on the streets and subway tunnels, often photographing them on-site.

In Serrano’s portrait of Sir Leonard, a homeless man encountered in the New York subway, the sitter is monumentalized against a blank background, confronting the camera in a proud, almost defiant manner as he grasps his belt buckle. He appears at ease in front of the camera, which captures the shadows around his face, the different textures of his clothing, and the bright pop of color from his scarf. Without any context, Sir Leonard appears to have been dressed and carefully posed in front of the camera by Serrano. The artist, however, claims little control over the subject, explaining, “…I didn’t ask my sitters to look dignified or noble. The most I ever asked them was to look left or right. But I found that they gave me a very heroic response. I didn’t add anything to what they already possess. I just provided the lighting.”

What is so fascinating about this photograph and others in the series is that Serrano’s role as the artist is limited to finding the subjects and providing a background for the portraits. The magic of the photograph emanates from the sitters themselves—their dignity emerging from adversity. Serrano masterfully captures a group of people often overlooked in society and elevates their pride and personalities to high art. He creates a new reality for his sitters, giving them a platform to express themselves. Aside from the background and lighting, these “Nomads” are in charge of their self-presentation, and they demand a second look from their audience.