New York

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1978, gelatin silver print, 4 1/2 × 4 1/2".

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1978, gelatin silver print, 4 1/2 × 4 1/2".

Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1978, gelatin silver print, 4 1/2 × 4 1/2".

Among the reasons the photographs of Francesca Woodman entrance me is the insouciant grace with which she and her collaborators occupy their frames. Wearing a long dress, striped stockings, or nothing at all, hair in a sloppy bun or set loose, Woodman presented a distinct style, evident even in her earliest self-portraits as a teenager. Her presentation’s declarative (often humorously hedged) ambition at times became a literal aspect of the work, as in a handwritten note in red pen on a photograph she sent to her parents in 1977: I'M TRYING MY HAND AT FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY. In the black-and-white image, whose inscription gave this stellar show its title and its tilt, Woodman stands, hands covering her face, in a heavy dress in front of a similarly textured blanket that has been pinned against the wall behind her like a curtain, introducing at once the theatrical staging of her approach to “fashion” photography, and its textured exercises.

These images fit easily within Woodman’s overall aesthetic. (The irony here is that her style has been copied by countless magazine and catalogue spreads since.) Yet something specific was at work in this grouping of twenty-nine photographs, all but four in black-and-white, taken between 1975 and 1980 in Providence (where Woodman graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1978), New York, and Italy.

One of the most influential photographers straddling both the fine-art and fashion worlds at this moment was Deborah Turbeville, and Woodman tried to get a job as her assistant (Turbeville never replied to Woodman’s overtures to meet). In a catalogue essay that matches the exhibition’s moving concision, Alison M. Gingeras describes the extraordinary artist’s book (not in the show) that Woodman assembled to woo the veteran photographer. Woodman certainly took up Turbeville’s dramatic direction, but she brought it elsewhere. She mixed the fantasy of fashion (beautiful girls playing dress-up in furs and pearls) with some of its more mature abjections (the body unable to escape fetishized display). Space is confined, cornered, and cropped. Light doesn’t just fall, it rakes over the figure like a pliable cage. Many scenes pushed this staging to an extreme, as if Woodman employed the diorama as a subversive structure—or even genre—for shooting a “fashion” photograph. (Invented by Daguerre, the diorama itself has a photographic heritage.)

Animals, that diorama fixture, were everywhere, sometimes by reference: a figure curled catlike atop a piano or scaling a wall like a lemur. And sometimes by their real/dead presence: a stuffed crow peering over a shoulder. In several pictures, dresses and shirts hang on nails like pelts. Fashion becomes a lace filter, a peeling layer—as if Woodman were playing with the double meaning of hide. The women within these enclosed environments appear to be shedding their skin, or trying on new skins, or attempting to transform their skin into that of the background wallpaper or shadows or window balustrade. This relates to Surrealist writer Roger Caillois’s discussion of mimicry in nature, as Rosalind Krauss has cited in other contexts—a phenomenon he likened to photography.

In my favorite photo, a taxidermic fox seems to nibble at the slack toe of a model’s pantyhose. The woman turns to the camera in a rare direct gaze, and we see that she is wearing a fox stole around her shoulders, creating an uncanny doubling of absurd rigor mortis. In another image, Woodman herself stretches in a black dress next to an elongated pelage. This parallelism, oddly empathetic, also provides more sensory pleasure elsewhere, as when a model wearing a polka-dot dress moves in full embrace through a row of white boas hanging from the ceiling—a kind of celestial image.

The artist’s most ambitious, if clandestine, dioramas are also her most direct “fashion” shots. A model, all leg, lounges at night in a sequined dress astride Patience and Fortitude, New York Public Library’s regal lion statues. In a second pair of images, another model in a bodysuit presses supine against the display case of a pack of running wolves at the American Museum of Natural History. Woodman’s apposition becomes the photograph itself: wild, captured behind glass.

Prudence Peiffer