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Francesca Woodman's "Naked Body Was Not A Simple Sexual Image"

The controversial author of 'Tampa' pays homage to the controversial, progressive photographer.
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Francesca Woodman was the hugely influential American photographer who challenged our understanding of female sexuality through her haunting and tragic self-portraits.

Alissa Nutting is an American writer who released her controversial debut novel, Tampa, last year. Her novel's narrator is a young female teacher who is sexually obsessed with her underage male students, and it is controversial because it challenges our understanding of female sexuality. Alissa is, coincidentally, speaking at the Festival for Dangerous Ideas, taking place in Sydney on August 30th and 31st.

I was around thirteen the first time I saw one of Francesca Woodman’s photographs in a library art book—she was naked and had gotten inside a museum vitrine (at the time I thought it was a fish tank); parts of her breast and thigh were smooshed up against the glass. This image felt like contraband in a very new way to me. I lived in a Catholic household, so any image of nudity was something I’d (unsuccessfully) been told to frown upon. But the photo challenged all of the previous information about the representations of female nakedness that I’d secretly pieced together. I was used to the naked female body being used as either an advertising tool, to sell something to women, or something created by and for the male gaze.

Those images had nothing in common with this one. Woodman was the artist and also the subject. She was clearly commenting on objectification, having quite literally put herself in the display case, but was also subverting it, purposefully using the glass to alter and transform the appear ance of the very body parts the male gaze would normally focus on. The lighting was somber rather than the luminous flashbulb backdrop popular with pinups. Her naked body was not a simple sexual image. She was in full control.

It was one of those moments of shifting perspective that made me realize I’d absorbed certain cultural messages as truisms without ever challenging them: young women were props and models for artists but not artists themselves. Women’s bodies can only be shown in sexually flattering ways. Woodman’s photo proved to me, instantaneously, that those ingrained messages were false—I had to see it to believe it. Belief, relief, gratitude, I felt all of these things. I wrote her name onto my skin in ink, and when I got home I wrote it again in a journal and again on another piece of paper. The Internet era was only beginning so I couldn’t Google her, but I knew that I had to remember her name at all costs. The very act of writing her name down onto paper felt revolutionary. I’d recently read Orwell’s 1984, and as I dwelled back upon the photo that I’d seen, I felt guilty of thoughtcrime. It seemed too good to be true, that a young female photographer had taken the exact photos I needed to see in order to feel like I could own and represent myself in the world.

The boom of her work’s larger mainstream publication, as well as the technological advance of easy online access to digital images, were both still several years away, but I was eventually able to find more of it anyway. The images were haunting and alluring: blurred faces, leg flesh bound off into segments with clear tape, the nude female body stretched or contorted into unusual poses. I was impressed even then, knowing the photos were around fifteen years old, at how contemporary and challenging they seemed (now that they’re around thirty years old, this is more impressive still); her work continues to confront our stereotypical images of the female body in a way that’s only gotten more relevant with the passing of time. The work seems dateless, simultaneously antique and futuristic—it tells a story of a fight for physical representation and ownership that for women is old as history.

But the particular time in my own life, when I was lucky enough to encounter Woodman’s work made a transformative impact that I can’t overstate. I was a very superstitious teenager who looked for coincidence and pattern in everything, desperately wanting to mitigate the frightening random chaos; I didn’t want to believe in chance. When I found out that Woodman committed suicide in 1981, the same year I was born, I took this coincidental fact deeply to heart; in my mind it helped further explain the feverish interest I had in her work—we were cosmological siblings. Perhaps she’d been exiting through some vital door at the same time I was entering. Perhaps we’d high-fived in some spirit realm, and when I saw her photographs I recognized her.

This intimacy I feel with Woodman of course speaks to the strength of her images, and is hardly a unique response on my behalf—the vulnerable strength she exhibits in her work makes viewers feel like she is confiding in them. Her photographs have always said to me, Here I am, creating art with a body that others would have me believe I do not own. With a body whose sexuality others try to say is not even mine to represent. I am not embarrassed to be bold or to be naked. I am not embarrassed to be female in the way I choose to be, despite society’s instructions. Seeing her photographs always felt, and still feels, like an inheritance: I’d been a young woman who thought she had to have her worth given to her by others. Woodman’s art showed me how valuable we female selves are all on our own—that the unique reflection we choose to offer up doesn’t have to look like anything we’ve ever seen before.

Francesca Woodman images courtesy of George and Betty Woodman and Victoria Miro Gallery, London.

Victoria Miro Gallery are hosting the Francesca Woodman Zigzag exhibition between 9 September and 4 October, 2014.

This feature was originally published in our August-September 2014 issue, 'Young and Restless', which you can buy over here!

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Francesca Woodman's "Naked Body Was Not A Simple Sexual Image"

Self Portrait, Providence, Rhode Island, 1978 (P.075). Gelatin silver estate print, 20.3 x 25.4cm (FW520).

Francesca Woodman images courtesy of George and Betty Woodman and Victoria Miro Gallery, London. 

Victoria Miro Gallery are hosting the Francesca Woodman Zigzag exhibition between 9 September and 4 October, 2014.

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"This image felt like contraband in a very new way to me. I lived in a Catholic household, so any image of nudity was something I’d (unsuccessfully) been told to frown upon"
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Francesca Woodman's "Naked Body Was Not A Simple Sexual Image"

Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976 (P.054). Gelatin silver estate print, 20.3 x 25.4cm (FW 518).

Francesca Woodman images courtesy of George and Betty Woodman and Victoria Miro Gallery, London.

Victoria Miro Gallery are hosting the Francesca Woodman Zigzag exhibition between 9 September and 4 October, 2014.

1
Francesca Woodman's "Naked Body Was Not A Simple Sexual Image"

From Space2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976 (P.010). Gelatin silver estate print, 25.4 x 20.3cm (FW 517).

Francesca Woodman images courtesy of George and Betty Woodman and Victoria Miro Gallery, London.

Victoria Miro Gallery are hosting the Francesca Woodman Zigzag exhibition between 9 September and 4 October, 2014.

1
"The work seems dateless, simultaneously antique and futuristic - it tells a story of a fight for physical representation and ownership that for women is old as history"
1
Francesca Woodman's "Naked Body Was Not A Simple Sexual Image"

Photography by Francesca Woodman

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Francesca Woodman's "Naked Body Was Not A Simple Sexual Image"

Photography by Francesca Woodman

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Francesca Woodman's "Naked Body Was Not A Simple Sexual Image"

Photography by Francesca Woodman

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Francesca Woodman's "Naked Body Was Not A Simple Sexual Image"

Photography by Francesca Woodman

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Francesca Woodman's "Naked Body Was Not A Simple Sexual Image"

Photography by Francesca Woodman

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