Sloan Keck is a name often linked to Francesca Woodman’s famous photography:
“Writing about Francesca is for me like writing about my elbow. I know it well…and I know how it works, but I feel it more than I look at it,” she explains in a conversation with Kelsi Farrington
Thirty years after Francesca’s tragic suicide, Sloan has both written and lectured about their time spent as friends and how Francesca, who only lived 22 years, set new and ethereal boundaries for up and coming female photographers and artists alike.
Kelsi: When did you first meet?
Sloan: “Francesca Woodman and I met the first day of college at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence.”I was 18 and she was 17 years old. She appeared in the doorway looking like a pot-smoking hippie and asked to borrow scissors. She said later that she thought I looked like a preppy tennis player… We began to take all our meals together.”
K: What were your first impressions of her photography?
S: “Francesca had only had a camera for a few years and the photographs I saw were not as strong as the photographs she began taking in school. She had only spent time in the summer around Boulder taking pictures and she had printed very few.One I liked, and was indicative of what she continued to do, was of her hair splayed on the roots of an uprooted tree trunk. The parallel of the hair and the roots is pronounced. She went on to make visual parallels in most of her strongest photographs.”
Sloan and other writers alike have explained how Francesca Woodman was a dark and often obscure photographer proud to admit that she was fond of mould disregarding the danger it posed to her film and thousands of black and white prints.
© (Copyright: The Estate of Francesca Woodman)
She explained how artistic ‘attributes’ and famous parents elevated Francesca as a rare yet eccentric photographer; wild at heart but with fixated revere. Francesca’s sketchy and often ink-stained journals would read unintelligible musings like “tuna fish and a lot of peach mumble… I have ideas cooking.”
K: How successful would you say she became and what of that success now?
S: “She was prolific for most of six years. She carefully edited her prints before she committed suicide and left only approximately 800-1000 prints out of 20,000 negatives.
“This body of work was inherited by her parents, Betty and George Woodman who have managed her “estate” and reaped great profit because the photographs were valued at an average of $8,000 each in 2000 and are now valued at an average of $45,000.00 by the Marion Goodman Gallery in NYC. This gallery handles the sales of her prints for the estate.”
K: How did you feel about modelling for Francesca?
S: “Francesca asked me to be in her pictures from the beginning. During the six years we were together as best friends, she used me as a model and collaborative photographer. I was shy about taking off my clothes and she asked that I turn my face away from the camera which made it easier. I also shot photographs of her, both clothed and nude.
K: What camera did you use?
S: “We both used a Rollei Twin-lens reflex camera.”
K: How did your friendship work? Did it inspire you as well?
S: “The first two years [freshman and sophomore years] the photographs and video clips were primarily documents of assignments which segwayed into other ideas. Francesca’s compulsion to be a serious photographer carried me along in my Major as an illustrator. I shot photographs of her and drew charcoal renderings.”
K: What do you think made your friendship work?
S: “Ideas poured out of us, we inspired each other tremendously and this working friendship, actively spending time together talking, sharing what interested us, and taking pictures was the powerful bond we established.
“I truly admired and enjoyed her intuitive nature and observations, sense of humour and serious dedication. She was unlike anybody I have ever met with particular ways of living and independent thought. Francesca was unusually intelligent. She skipped a year of school which is why she was one year younger when entering college.”
K: What made you decide to lecture about Francesca?
S: “I was solicited. Her parents needed to define the dates and places of the photographs for the upcoming major show in Paris at the Cartier, 17 years after her death. There had been the first show of her work at Wellesley College arranged by a friend of the family and that seemed to launch the parents’ promotion of the work.
“Betty Woodman is a high-profile ceramic artist. George Woodman has waffled between pattern painting, which had a short-lived span of notoriety, and his photography work, which began after Francesca died…”
K: What were your fondest memories together?
S: “We spent all our time talking about photography and art in those college days and post college days. We shared an apartment in the historic centre of Rome for a year. We saw each other almost every day in New York City, where we both moved when we graduated.”
K: Did she ever give any hints that she was having thoughts of suicide?
S: “There was some discussion at times by Francesca – brief comments, short journal entries, indicating she thought about death and committing suicide. At that young age, it seemed to be an ordinary thought, not a serious contemplation.
K: How could a photographer be so entirely involved producing pictures and be serious about ending her life?
S: “It was more of an arbitrary passing thought, similar to thinking about traveling around the world someday, or robbing a bank.
“The juxtaposition of inspiration and complete despair do not go hand in hand. It was preposterous to laugh as much as we did and think seriously of suddenly ending the happy process of picture making. Francesca became depressed for many reasons.
K: What do you think caused her darkest of thoughts?
S: “She was fragile and had a propensity to be concerned with her emotional state and had very little defense for her feelings of inadequacy. In youth it is normal to wonder if you will be successful and able in launching a career, a long-term relationship, or pursue a formal goal.”
A selection of Francesca’s work is on show on the Tate’s website which gives a profile on the American photographer and also discusses some of her sources of inspiration.
You can view them here along with the work of similar artists.