Heavy with heartache and loss, Lisa Goodrum turned to the haunting photography of Francesca Woodman to make sense of the pain and the blurry, achromatic period that was the summer of 2019. Here, in hauntingly beautiful prose, she tells her story.
Content warning: this essay contains references to depression and suicide.
Outside the National Portrait Gallery the weather oscillated madly between downpours and brilliant sunshine. I had cajoled my brother into coming along to Self Evidence: Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe before he headed off to his shift serving drinks to revellers already drunk on the cultural banquet for which the Edinburgh Festival is famous.
I was already familiar with Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. He had chronicled the Dancer from the Dance world of 1970s and 1980s New York that I have always been fascinated by and his compellingly sadistic photographs had fluttered through my reading and writing for years. I knew Diane Arbus as the photographer who created images of ‘freaks’. It’s a reductive description but scholars and photography enthusiasts have found it difficult to characterise images like ‘Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey’ or ‘Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents’ as anything else. Arbus’s pictures are not of conventional people. Her subjects – like the majority of Mappelthorpe’s – resided in the social margins. Both artists’ work walked on the wild side of societal norms and provided glimpses of individuals whose lives and predilections usually remained hidden. I loved the worlds these images evoked and the fact that they shine a light into the dark and seamy sublayers of a delinquent demi-monde; but they failed to touch me in the same way that Francesca Woodman’s did.
Prior to that day I had not heard of Woodman. She was the exhibition’s unknown element and in all honesty, I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about seeing her work, but three years later it is her images that remain the most salient. Described as the Sylvia Plath of photography, Woodman died via suicide at the age of twenty-two. I think it was the knowledge of her early death and the element of absence in her work that spoke to me that day. Loss was something I was intimately familiar with that summer of 2019. I had been pushed into a position of bereftness and now, I was stuck in it, like one of those yoga poses that are so uncomfortable but you just have to sit in and breathe through. Yet my breathing was ragged, shallow and quick, sometimes too quick so that I had to try and catch it; catch it and understand it, like I’d been trying to understand the last eighteen months.
In February 2018, I’d gone to Los Angeles and fallen in love with an artist. It happened too fast but I was bowled over by this talented, magnetic and altogether compelling man. Even more surprisingly, he seemed to be astounded by me. I rapidly became everything he wanted and everything he seemed willing to go to the ends of the earth to have. He crossed the Atlantic to visit me in London, we spoke every day and spooled plans for a future that included me living with him in New York, art openings dotted across the US, PhDs and children. We conjured a future; a glimmering world bright with print, colour and laughter. Then, the roof to our dream house fell in. I felt as if I resembled Woodman in her image ‘Untitled 1975–1980’ in which a door lies, looking like it has fallen on top of the artist. In rapid succession I was made redundant, the artist was dropped by his dealer and our relationship, which had been warmed by memories of the Los Angeles sunshine, began to thaw. Our conversations became sparse and when they did occur he countered any comments I made, or opinions I voiced, by asking me who was the professor at the prestigious university where he taught. This tacit taunting only compounded my sense of shame and failure at losing my job, for within it lay the message: ‘I am better than you. I have power over you.’
As these reminders continued my metaphorical door grew heavier, despite how hard I tried to hold it up and how hard I strived to be happy, upbeat and disguise how I felt like everything I knew was disappearing around me. Like the room in Woodman’s photograph, the walls of our dream house were bare and the rooms were empty. I was the one left behind, trying to prop up the door of a relationship with a man who had discovered my greatest fear: that I wasn’t really as amazing as he thought. After all, how could I be? I hadn’t even managed to hang on to the job that he believed gave me cachet. Woodman’s images convey a similar sense of fragility. Eventually, the weakness of his admiration for me and what I represented became obvious and it snapped.
In modern parlance the term ‘ghosted’ is defined as occurring when somebody – be it a friend or a romantic partner – cuts off all contact with you without warning or explanation: They simply disappear. In Woodman’s photographs she appears as a ghost or wraith-like figure. She favoured slow shutter speeds and long exposure times so that she had the space to move and merge with her environment and become blurred and lacking in solid form. This air of vulnerability is enhanced by the vintage Gothicism of her clothes. The fabrics are nebulous and appear threadbare, as if they are clinging on to what once made them whole. Moving through the gallery that’s how I still felt, even eleven months after losing my job and losing the artist; like I was out of focus and barely visible to those around me. The recent tumult had left me blurry and indistinct, as if someone had filed away the sharp edges that one sometimes needs to elbow their way through life. Now I felt soft at the core and at the edges, as if my nerve endings were dulled by disenfranchised grief. I couldn’t understand why I was mourning something that I never had and why losing this imaginary life hurt so much. My vision of life with him had been so vibrant and colourful but now it was a blur, achromatic and confined to dusty barren rooms in which I ceased to exist.
The biggest problem was that I had no answers to the questions I repeatedly asked myself. Before, I had been a three-dimensional person, but now I felt like a phantom hidden in the corner whose passion for their job and engaging with the world was ebbing away. I felt like the inchoate and vulnerable figure who takes up space in the most limited way in Woodman’s images and the ugly truth was that losing my job and being abandoned by the artist had destroyed my confidence. I felt unwanted, and ironically, utterly redundant. I managed to reach the author by telephone, although I only achieved this by hiding my number. He picked up and the air between us was tight and cold as if we were in one of Woodman’s empty rooms with the cracked and damaged masonry, ruined paintwork and broken furniture. We too had fallen into a state of disrepair, but it was not owing to my neglect. I had spent the last few weeks reaching out and had excitedly sent him a birthday present which also fell into the icy void between us and was never acknowledged; like it didn’t exist. In our frosty phone call I knew that I had ceased to exist for him too; I was a ghost. At some point he had severed the connection between us and simply omitted to tell me. My participation in the dissolution was not required. It was a solo decision.
The how and why of this termination continued to gnaw at me. My questions still visit me now but they are no longer such a constant companion. My therapist and I devised methods with which I could answer them and his guidance, combined with my own research, led me to uncover the inner workings of the narcissist. I became my own emotional detective and it was in that creature’s modus operandi that I found something of an explanation. I had been idealised, devalued and discarded; the narcissistic holy trinity. The shock of desertion and the insouciance with which it was meted out is a feeling that will stay with me for a long time. Feeling so devalued, and ultimately discarded, was horrible but that it occurred on a personal and professional level simultaneously was almost unbearable. In 1981 Francesca Woodman died via suicide. Prior to her death she became depressed owing to her work failing to garner critical attention; a slight that was compounded when she was refused funding from the National Endowment of the Arts. Her relationship had also ended and the confluence of these events crystallised in a suicide attempt in late 1980. I wonder whether Woodman felt professionally devalued? After all, the funding body had refused to invest in her. They had not thought her worthy of the outlay. It was reminiscent of being made redundant when the company who bought your company did not recognise your value and so jettisoned you, and while I hesitate to claim that Woodman was discarded, the feelings of abandonment at the end of a job or a relationship mean that this can be the final impression with which one is left. Was this feeling what compelled Woodman to jump out of a loft window on New York’s Upper East Side on 19 January 1981?
I don’t want to read Woodman’s images solely in the light of her suicide. It seems too glib, and too easy. Yet, even though I was unaware that the photographer had taken her own life prior to walking into that Edinburgh gallery, her pictures radiated a sense of loss and invisibility; an impression that Woodman was no longer allied to a concrete centre in the world. This resonated with me. I perceived something in her work that intrigued me about her long after I saw those images. Indeed, they echoed through me so much that three years later I am writing about them. In hindsight, I believe that my attraction to them was their attempt to reconcile presence and absence. The viewer had to coordinate the obscured figure in them with the reality of the person they documented; behind the photographic fog was a real person. Just as behind the shimmering haze of my temporary job, friends and a loving family, stood someone who, although they appeared so solid and grounded, had been catapulted into a landscape of loss: someone who was there and present, but for whom so much had become absent: a relationship, a career, a future. The long, and often, tortuous road back to the person I was before all these things vanished was hard, and in all honesty, I cannot yet claim that I have reached my destination. My confidence was battered and I frequently wondered whether I was employable or loveable, and whether life would ever return to what I termed as ‘normal.’
By August 2019 I had been going to therapy for three months. This was a step I never thought I would take. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done and I can still vividly recall the sheer terror that gripped me as I dallied on my way to my first appointment. I wanted nothing more than to run away and cast my feelings off as far as possible. Prior to therapy though, I was like Woodman; stuck under a mental door so that the space I occupied in the world changed shape to accommodate the weight I was bearing. My thoughts looped around and around my head but they always returned to the same occupations: where had it all gone wrong? Perhaps, if I could identify that, I could rectify things. What happened? How had I lost so much in such a short space of time? The thoughts wound around and around my brain and the thread grew tighter because I couldn’t find any answers. I couldn’t find a solution. I couldn’t find closure.
Likewise, there is no real sense of closure in Woodman’s photographs because there is nothing definitive in them; the artist’s face is obscured and owing to the monochromatic setting and her vintage clothing, the viewer cannot place her in a definitive historical period: she exists outside of time. Looking back, I think that this was another reason why Woodman’s images captured my attention. Their liminality almost obscured the torment they captured and their cloudiness prevented the viewer from clearly seeing what was in front of them, just like I couldn’t pinpoint my emotions or define the emotional terrain that I was navigating. To complicate matters further, I didn’t even believe that I deserved to feel my feelings. Why was I mourning a relationship that had never really existed? Worse, I knew that those feelings were there but I couldn’t firmly access them. They were coated in a glossy, highly functioning veneer that would only slowly yield to the pressure of enquiry so that it took me a long time to recognise that what I was really battling with was quite simply, heartbreak.
About Lisa Goodrum
Lisa Goodrum is currently a freelance editor and proofreader who has previously worked for companies such as I.B.Tauris and Bloomsbury where she has commissioned art history, gender studies and philosophy. She commissions narrative non-fiction for Inkandescent publishers in the areas of biography, memoir, reportage, gender studies and cultural criticism and has written for The Sock Drawer Literary Magazine, t’ART magazine and Cōnfingō magazine. She is a bookworm, art lover, dog obsessive and fanatical Manchester United fan. You can find her on Instagram @lougood83 and Twitter @LisaGoodrum.
Feature image: Francesca Woodman’s Space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978, 1978, via WikiArt under fair use.