The Artist’s Books
There’s an air of intrigue around the life and work of photographer Francesca Woodman. For one thing, her roughly eight hundred photographs tend to evoke the mysterious with their blurred figures, romantically crumbling settings, and vintage props. Then there’s the fact that she committed suicide in 1981 at the young age of twenty-two, cutting short what could have been a long career before it really began. Now, with the release of Francesca Woodman: The Artist’s Books, even the most informed Woodman fans are discovering that there’s still more they didn’t know about her. Of the eight artist’s books gathered in this volume, only one has ever been previously published and two were rediscovered recently (in the archives of The Woodman Family Foundation, which also include the many notebooks Woodman kept for to-do lists, ideas, and sketches).
Woodman created all her artist’s books between 1976 and 1980, printed in this compilation as facsimiles in reverse chronological order. They’re reproduced on the blank white pages of this oversized volume almost in the same way that she mounted her small photographs into secondhand books. The experience of reading them assembled in a hefty hardcover, though, instead of as slim standalone books, lends them a new gravitas that demands they be considered seriously, and together.
Some Disordered Interior Geometries (1980) is the only artist’s book published in Woodman’s lifetime in a small edition of five hundred, released shortly before her death and then distributed at her memorial service in the spring of 1981. Now coveted by Woodman collectors, copies from this limited early edition have since sold for thousands of dollars. In this and the rest of her artist’s books, Woodman used antique textbooks and notebooks as readymade supports that she pasted prints and transparencies of her photographs into, sometimes also adding handwritten text.
“Last year while I was in Italy I started collecting old school notebooks and hand-written diaries from the 19th century and started putting pairing photographs w/ them. I’ve always printed small but the photos seemed less precious and more personal when in the books,” Woodman wrote in a journal entry around 1980, quoted in an essay by collections curator of the Woodman Family Foundation, Katarina Jerinic (the only body of text separate from the artist’s books in this volume). “The books started to influence the work.” Woodman spent her junior year at the Rhode Island School of Design at an overseas program in Rome, and it was there that she discovered the Libreria Maldoror—a counterculture bookshop where she sourced many of the materials she later used for her artist’s books. Others were probably found at Rome’s Porta Portese flea market. For an artist whose works have a decidedly old-world look—opting for black-and-white film, for example, and using vintage clothes and antique settings—the nineteenth century notebooks were a match.
The varying formats of these secondhand books lent themselves to different interventions. In Untitled (Self-Deceit) (1978), one of the previously unknown books found recently, Woodman used the blank, yellowing pages of an alphabetically tabbed index to hold her 1978 series of “Self-Deceit” photographs. In other books, there are closer connections between the found books and what she added to them. Some Disordered Interior Geometries was made using a vintage Italian geometry book, with shapes in her photographs echoing the diagrams of the book. One self-portrait shows Woodman standing against a background of a rectangular white textile, and she added cursive text beneath that reads: “almost a square.” The facing page illustrates a series of quadrilaterals.
In others, Woodman allowed the books that she found to fuse with her images and create new composites. For Quaderno dei Dettati e dei Temi (1978-80) she used an old composition notebook with elaborate Italian cursive handwriting, adding transparencies of her grayscale photos so that the writing underneath is visible. The text and images can no longer be visually separated from each other. “I’m making more books w/ transparent images overlaid them,” Woodman wrote in a letter to her friend and mentor, Rome-based artist Edith Schloss. “I really feel like they make sense and are pretty interesting which is a nice change from that queasy feeling I so often feel.” She also used this technique in Quaderno Raffaello (1978), a book possibly conceived as a portfolio to send to fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville, who Woodman admired. In it, she pasted transparent photos on every other page with scribbled text that reads: “Call me as soon as/you can. I am/anxiously awaiting/your reply./Call collect 401-274-4184/i’m hoping.”
Woodman never sent Turbeville the book. And she never published any of her books beyond Some Disordered Interior Geometries. She never made any known artist’s books outside of those presented in this volume. The reader is left wondering whether she picked up other secondhand notebooks at Libreria Maldoror that remained forever empty of her photographs, and if she did, what plans she may have had for them. Telling us more about Woodman than we knew before, her artist’s books also create a new set of haunting questions about what might have been.