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The Artist’s Books: Reviewed by Meggan Gould

Book Review The Artist’s Books By Francesca Woodman Reviewed by Meggan Gould "Francesca Woodman: The Artists Books has been sitting on my desk for some months, haunting me. I have been slow to open it, and slow to compose this eventual response; I keep getting circularly mired in trying to account for this reticence..."

The Artist’s Books. By Francesca Woodman.
The Artist’s Books
By Francesca Woodman

MACK Books, London, UK, 2023. 416 pp., 9¾x11¾".

Francesca Woodman: The Artists Books has been sitting on my desk for some months, haunting me. I have been slow to open it, and slow to compose this eventual response; I keep getting circularly mired in trying to account for this reticence.

The first few photography courses I took were in the continuing education program at the Rhode Island School of Design. My own obsession was instant and irrevocable, and I was soon earning minimum wage as a monitor in the continuing ed darkroom, using the earnings to buy any box of photo paper I could afford, and time in the lab to burn through the paper. The year was 2000, two decades after Francesca Woodman was an undergraduate student at RISD, and she still loomed large in the Providence photographic mystique. It feels like a confession then, that I never engaged much with Woodman’s work. Several iconic images were seared into my memory alongside a perfunctory, broad-stroke biography of her too-short life, but I had never sat long with the photographs themselves.

Until now. I open these pages, these books within a book. It is a weighty compendium: 412 pages and maybe 412 pounds to match. Within are reproduced, page by page, eight artist books that Woodman made between 1976 and 1980 while a student at RISD. The vessel for each of the eight books is a vintage notebook or journal, acquired by Woodman while studying abroad in Rome during her junior year in college.

MACK has done an extraordinary job reproducing these notebooks. Each page of once-white-now-yellowing notebook paper is laid out on the larger white pages, each gutter of original notebook aligned with the gutter of the larger tome. The tonality of the paper stocks is exquisitely rendered, and I drown, happy, in the details of the edges of the pages and their two-dimensional splay. The paper surface itself becomes as much a protagonist in these notebooks as Woodman herself. The bleeding of ink permeates multiple pages, water stains creep from edges, yellowing tape patches tears, crisp corners disintegrate. The trompe l’oeil reproduction makes me want to peel each original photo up from the uncannily perfect pages; I have a physical response that vacillates between extreme pleasure (visual) and frustration (tactile) at the flattened pages.

I cannot help but think of the scrawled surfaces of the notebook pages as akin to decorative rugs (in the best possible way) beneath Woodman’s square, concise photographs. In Portraits, Friends, Equations (1977-1978), Woodman’s page-rugs are an equation-ridden notebook that dates from 1894-1895; in Angels, Calendar Notebook (1977-1978) exquisitely rendered calligraphy gives us page after page of undated French poetry. In each: a juxtaposition of languages, or of sensibilities, lingers in the intersection between the found penwork and the silver gelatin insets.

“Blank” pages (devoid of text, image, or both) are reproduced in the notebooks as faithfully as those with Woodman’s glued or taped photographs, allowing us to experience the pacing as the artist would have, as if we had each notebook in hand. Untitled (Pilgrim Mills) includes only seven photographs, taken at the eponymous mill in Providence where she rented a studio before her year abroad. Its background is elaborate cursive jottings of names and numbers, unparseable. Blankness settles into its power as a theme; the photographic pacing within each notebook is irregular, and there are many stretches where page after page of comparative emptiness unfurl.

You may note that I have remained reticent to write about the photographs. A brief attempt: they are quiet riddles. Most are reliant on choreographed interior spaces. Fragments of bodies flit through a camera that is almost always low to the ground. Some are printed on transparencies, and dark photographic silver merges with the underlying handwriting. Woodman’s pencil notes and (very occasional) caption stop me as they almost pierce what becomes a consistent veil of multilayered illegibility. White paint covers some passages, frames some photos. Fluid and raw, the photographs somehow contain both joy and pain — or maybe prison and freedom — in equal measure.

It is hard not to think of the blank pages as evocative of the missing years of this artist, who ended her life at the age of 22. I don’t try too hard to decode the internal logic of any of the individual books, or maybe any of the individual photographs, although Katerina Jerinic, the Collections Curator for the Woodman Family Foundation, provides snippets of context for each of the notebooks. The book ends with a letter Woodman wrote to her parents from Rome, where she echoes my own haplessness, trying to make sense of the beauty, strangeness, and sadness of these sweet books:

“…i don’t seem to be able to take very nice pictures these days/It’s a little depressing especially since i am here in Italy, surrounded by beauty. So lately I’ve been sticking the things i did this fall into books like the one this paper came from. I’m not sure it helps the pictures but it does make me feel usefuller.”

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Meggan Gould is an artist living and working outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,, the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, and Speos (Paris Photographic Institute), where she finally began her studies in photography. She received an MFA in photography from the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth. She recently wrote a book, Sorry, No Pictures, about her own relationship to photography.