Are the Ways of Seeing Francesca Woodman and Edith Gowin the same?

Sigfrid Lundberg's Stuff, 2015-10-08


In the background are two of Francesca Woodman's Caryatids. There are a large sample of photobooks about Francesca on the table in the foreground

Francesca Woodman took her life 1981 at 22 years of age. By then she had become a serious, hardworking and very good artistic photographer. She had started her exploration of art photography when she was 13. When considering these early works, we are talking of the serious endeavour of a precocious, talented teenager, not a child's play.

Much of her work is self portraiture, and often she portrays herself undraped. There are several female photographers who have earned well-deserved fame for (among other things) photographing naked humans, such as Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernard. They both depicted naked women, but as far as I know, neither Cunningham nor Bernard turned their cameras towards themselves; with or without clothes.

Francesca Woodman's work is on exhibition, entitled On being an Angle at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. According to Anna Tellgren, the curator, the reason why Woodman used herself as model was just practical1. She was there herself when she needed one, at a lower cost than the alternatives and there would never be any problems with model release contracts.

However, I am sure there is more to than that. There were brilliant contemporaries, like Cindy Sherman, who started similar projects late 1970ties. Photographers that have since become important players on the photography scene. The interest in self-portraiture has increased through the decades. It is now a fairly common genre and I think it is more common among women than men.

This text is about my attempt to understand that difference between the sexes.

Emmett Gowin from Landscape Stories on Vimeo.

The only things I know about Edith Gowin is that she is a beautiful woman and that her husband is photographer Emmet Gowin. He is a well known photographer who earned some of his fame for portraits of his often scantily clad wife. The two have now celebrated their golden wedding anniversary since several years. In the interviews you find of them (for example on YouTube) they seem to be still today a loving couple. It might be that Emmet don't take as many photographs of Edith now as he did 40-50 years ago.

Other husbands and photographers take photos of their wives. Some go far artistically such as Alfred Stieglitz' (1864-1946) portraits of Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). They arose from an intense love story, marriage and a long relationship. 2 Edward Weston shot countless of nudes, of which, according to Robert Adams, most are fairly uninteresting:

With the exception of two full length nudes of Tina Modotti and five of Charis Wilson in the Oceano dunes (not many, considering the number of nudes Weston took), the pictures that supposedly resulted from Weston's love for his subjects are relative to the rest of his life's work, unsuccessful; they are cold to the point of being dead. 3

These photos are to be found on many web sites. Suitable searches in Google images:

Many photos by much lesser artists than Weston deserve even less praise. It might be that most such pictures shouldn't really have been taken.

One of the best, earliest and still extremely influential theoretical analyses of the nude in western art is in Ways of seeing by John Berger4. His arguments can be summarized in contrasting statements. For example:

Men survey Women are the surveyed p. 46
Men act Women appear p. 47
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. p. 47
To be naked is to be oneself To be nude is to be seen as naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself p. 54

Berger argues that to be naked is to be without disguise, and to be nude is to be on display, to carry ones nakedness as a disguise. To be disguised without clothes is like being condemned to never be naked. In the western nude cliche, the model is there, on display, disguised in he nakedness for the pleasures of the male viewer.

I could go on giving examples of contrasts from Berger's treatment. What interests me, though, is how can we discuss Woodman's self portraiture in the light of Berger's contrasting statements.

Then we have Edith and Emmet Gowin, and those seven out of houndreds nudes by Weston that Robert Adams felt was OK. Interestingly Berger talks of hundreds of thousands of nude oil paintings (and perhaps millions of photographs) that fit the cliche he describes and a few houndreds exceptions that do not. Berger describes them in terms of the strength of the painter's vision:

In each case the painter's personal vision of the particular women he is painting is so strong that it makes no allowance for the spectator. The painter's vision binds the woman to him so they become as inseparable as couples in stone. The spectator can witness their relationship - but he can do no more: he is forced to recognize himself as the outsider he is. He cannot deceive himself into believing that she is naked for him. [my emphasis]

I think John Berger's description of these exceptional paintings fits Emmet's photos of Edith as well. The two did this together, and they love each other and both of them engage in this game for two. You are allowed to see some of what they did, but it wasn't for you. If she looks into the lens, then she is looking into Emmet's eyes, not yours.

What about Francesca Woodman? She had, being a young woman, watched herself being looked at. Indeed, she did that in the darkroom as well. She could evaluate to what extent she succeded. She had complete control and could be nude or naked depending on what she'd like a given day or what her artistic goals were for a given work. What we see is fiction, she can decide that she is there for the spectator.

Emmet is a documentary photographer; in an interview Edith describes how he asks her to stay where she was until he came back with his camera. Emmet is looking at her, but she doesn't mind. Woodman the photographer does not have wait for Francesca the model to do something worth shooting.

It is easier for her to make strong statements about being watching herself being looked at. Emmet could never do that.

Foot notes

  1. Segestam, Göran, 2015. Poddradio: Kultförklarad ängel fascinerar alltjämt. Fotosidan, Stockholm.
  2. Stieglitz And O'Keeffe: Their Love And Life In Letters
  3. Adams, Robert, 1994. Why people photograph. Aperture Foundation, New York.
  4. Berger, John, 1972. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books ltd. London.

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My name is Sigfrid Lundberg. The stuff I publish here may, or may not, be of interest for anyone else.

On this site there is material on photography, music, literature and other stuff I enjoy in life. However, most of it is related to my profession as an Internet programmer and software developer within the area of digital libraries at the Royal Library, Copenhagen (Denmark) and, before that, Lund university (Sweden).

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