Photobook Review: The Artist's Books by Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman made eight artist’s books in her short lifetime, tipping images into old geometry books, placing black and white transparencies over handwritten script, and incorporating her images into the faded handwritten scripts from a time gone by.

 The Artist’s Books collects these eight book together for the first time, reproducing them in their entirety. The books she used  were ‘twentieth-century journals and notebooks that Woodman collected from bookshops and flea markets in Rome in the late 1970s’.

With their words, their stains, their creases and marks, these books add another layer of materiality, time, memory, and knowledge to Woodman’s enigmatic work. Woodman’s photographs have been categorised as showing her body as something both of and outside herself, a trace of self that flits across the image, that finds itself in timeless deserted houses that question ideas of the woman’s body, the gaze, fetishism, and Woodman’s examination of all these themes.

The books add another strata of time to proceedings, placing her images in the world of early 20th century Italy,  and adding to the layers of materiality evident in these artist’s books. The book, Quadderno dei Detati e dei Temi layers positive transparencies over a ‘notebook of dictations and themes’, all written out in elegant handwritten script. The pages of the notebook are yellowed and torn, and the positive images layers  themes of the domestic and the erotic, and the splitting of Woodman into multiple selves, both in her eyes and the eyes of the viewer.

How much you get from the work possibly depends on how much you know about Francesca Woodman (and I must confess I don’t know very much). But works like Some Disordered Interior Geometries or Angels, Calendar, Notebook show her use of empty houses, decaying floorboards, and cracking plasterwork as a backdrop to her choregoraphed movements through space, time, and selfhood.

In her key essay on Woodman’s work, Abigail Solomon-Godeau wrote that in Woodman’s work ‘the space of woman´s seclusion and worldly exclusion not only imprisons, but consumes.’

This idea is apparent in these artist’s books, works which show the  ‘linking of the woman´s body to the walls and surfaces it seems bonded to repeat the theme of the body as itself a surface.’

And just as the body is surface, a multi-faceted surface that both becomes part of the environments it inhabits, so the pages of these Italian notebooks are surfaces. Faded with time, they present geometrical, mathematical, and cultural frames of reference into which Woodman’s being melds.

The penultimate artist’s book in the collection is annotazioni, a book which contains images from her Self Deceit series. Here she poses naked, using a mirror to conceal, reflect, or cover herself as she moves around the cracking plasterwork of a derelict house.

There is no definitive answer to what is happening in these books, but the range of work they show, and the repeated material sense of entropy that come from the images and books together gives us a certain freedom to try and read what is happening in these images and notebooks. They allow us to project our ideas onto her fragmented face, her blurred body as it appears against the crumbling foundations of a deserted house in the yellowing pages of an old alphabetised Italian notebook, its creases and stains mirroring those of the house she portrays herself in. Looking at the final (repeated) image of her crouching in the corner, her back to the camera, her head tucked in, the mirror gazing blankly back at us, she seems so very sad and small, enveloped by that space, that expectation, by the weight of memory and time, all contained within that body, that mind, that room, that house and the pages of that little alphabetised book.

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The Artist's Book is published by Mack Books

Embossed hardcover using Japanese paper, with tipped-in image

24.5 x 30 cm, 416 pages

 ISBN 978-1-913620-88-2

May 2023

€80 £65 $80

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Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, Sofa Portraits is available here.  Follow him on Instagram