I began researching Francesca Woodman as part of the Durational Space project and immediately struck by the similarity of her mental health to my own. I have struggled for months with various aspects of my care and disease. Sadly, Woodman at the age of 22 committed suicide after jumping off a building. “We read such a lot.” In the past, Woodman’s suicide – she jumped off a building in lower Manhattan – has been linked to a funding application that had been turned down. Berne disputes this. “She had an illness: depression. That’s all there is to it.” (Cooke, 2014).
It is sad to think that Woodman’s work did not achieve any status until after her death. Woodman’s suicide seems to be the focus of her autobiographical work and it should not be the case.Yes in someway she gained the recognition she deserved but her death is not why she was a success if you read the photographs. Woodman’s parents both with a creative background gave her a camera a Yashica 2¼ x 2¼ when she was just 13. In a lifetime she would produce over 800 pieces culminating in an exhibition entitled zigzag. Her images were of self-portraits and using either arms, legs, or other parts of the limbs but excluding her face and intertwining a collection of angles.
This gave me the inspiration for this exercise. Woodman, employs the use of slow shutter speed and composition with light and shadow, contrast and use of monochrome to convey a sense of drama as in the ‘untitled image’ of Woodman bare footed bending forwards and out of the frame but with a blurred action of a flimsy material. The skirting is sloping downwards.
Like Woodman I am restricted in the use of models and my mobility further restricts locations where I can access. So just why did she put herself in the images?
Francesca once said that it was just a matter of “convenience”: she was always available, whereas finding a model would take time. “I do think that was it,” says Betty. “Though telling yourself what to do is also much easier than telling someone else to smile, or to look this way or that.” (Cooke, 2014). I don’t think that she was being narcissistic being her own model Kirsty Mitchell also took self-portraits in similar surroundings of dilapidated buildings shortly after her mother’s death.
I imagine that she was also controlled by her mental health and probably withdrew at times from the world immersing herself in photography. I say this because I use my own photography as a form of expression and escape.
In 2014, under immense pressure from work to take early ill-health retirement and living with a deteriorating terminal neurological condition I tried to commit suicide. I didn’t plan it but one cold, bleak april morning I woke up and left everything behind and drove to Beachy Head. Everyday mental health is a constant battle for me. On reflection the past few months have been a struggle with this course and I found myself thinking why am I putting myself through this?
But today, I woke and the sun was shining; with a positive attitude I picked up my coursework for the first time this year.
How do I portray what it is like for me to look in the mirror and see before your very eyes your body wasting? How do I express my fears, anxieties and depression?
I think that John Coplan had the answer. He was a British artist, art writer, curator and museum director who at the end of World War II emigrated to the United States. He became a director of the Akron Art Museum in Ohio.
In the 1960s, he began taking photographs of his own body and documented the ageing process. The photographs recorded what was once familiar had now become unfamiliar. I can compare this to my own body at the age of 48 and with the disease progression of only five years I no longer recognise my own feet. They have become distorted and contorted with the toes curling under and atrophy across the top of my feet as the nerves waste away sending signals to the muscles eventually causing atrophy.
I have carers to help me daily with showering, dressing, drying and making meals. The routine is laborious at times. It’s great to have help but I want to be independent for as long as possible. My activities are somewhat restricted; however, this gave me the idea to combine Coplan and Woodman’s style and be able to use a slow shutter speeds. Adopting Woodman’s composition but showing my deteriorating body as Coplan had done became quite an obvious choice. I thought about showering and how my naked body is exposed to the world and plain to see that my lower limbs are weak, disfigured and aged. What indeed was familar is now unfamiliar to me.
This exercise though posed several difficulties and challenges. The first being alone and no one to operate the camera and how would I get changed, unchanged and dried unaided; and be the model. So, in order to do this, I placed the items I required e.g. shower chair before I took the photographs. I used a tripod and manually focused the lens with a self-timer. To increase the exposure the naturally lit room I used a 6-stop Lee filter thus increasing the exposure from 1/8th of a second to 8-10 seconds.
I deliberately positioned the wide angle lens downwards to only capture the lower half of my body. I wanted to tell the story of not only a daily activity but how I cope. How I have to transfer from my electric powered chair into a plastic shower seat and leave my clothes within reach. There is no such thing as an ‘easy task’. I deliberately framed it so that my head was not visible but leaving my legs and arms in as the frame as much as possible. I couldn’t guarantee that of course my head would not appear! The angles of the tiles, flooring are reminiscent of Woodman’s photographs.
Unlike both Coplan and Woodman whose work is predominately in black and white I wanted to retain the colour in my photographs’. I converted them to black and white but it seemed the context and narrative was lost.
The first frame depicts the atrophy, clawed toes and the deformed ankles and lack of muscle in the upper legs but you cannot see the neuropathy that I have. I now wonder how do I portray that sensation? Short of sticking needles in I am at loss how to photograph neuropathy. Perhaps I shall give this some consideration.
I think this exercise was a success and overall I am pleased with the results.
Cooke, R. (2014) ‘Searching for the real Francesca Woodman’, The Guardian, 31 August. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/31/searching-for-the-real-francesca-woodman (Accessed: 13 February 2017).
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/john-coplans-2353 (Accessed: 13 February 2017).