On January 19, 1981, the photographer Francesca Woodman, 22 at the time, jumped out of a New York City loft window, ending her own life. It was not her first attempt at suicide. “After three weeks and weeks and weeks of thinking about it, I finally managed to try to do away with myself as neatly and concisely as possible,” Woodman wrote to her friend and former classmate at Rhode Island School of Design Sloan Rankin, after she first tried to end her life in September 1980. “I do have standards, and my life at this point is like very old coffee sediment, and I would rather die young, leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with you and some other artifacts in tact, instead of pell mell erasing all of these delicate things.”
In the wake of her death, Woodman’s photographs — haunting black-and-white images, which examine her own body and ambivalence toward it — have received much critical acclaim. Yet a new exhibit, currently on display at Vienna’s Sammlung Verbund gallery, and corresponding book (out next month) argues against popular interpretations of Woodman’s images that foreshadow her premature demise. In an introductory essay, the critic Elisabeth Bronfen disputes Peggy Phelan’s suggestion that Woodman’s obsession with blurred renditions of her own figure are “understood as a way to rehearse her own death,” asserting instead: “By resolutely dedicating herself to the fragility of her own appearance as a photographic rendition, Woodman highlights the very inexorable inconsistency that ties the vitality of artistic work to the transience of life.”
Click through the slideshow for a look back at some of Woodman’s most striking images from her time living in Providence, New York, and Rome.