At first, C. Scott Willis’ latest film “The Woodmans” appears to be a film documenting Francesca Woodman, who at the age of 22 took her own life and left behind a body of exquisite photographs. Instead, it is a rare portrait of an artist family, all of which have been successful, in their own right. This is not the first documentary on Francesca Woodman. In 2000 Elisabeth Subrin created the film, “The Fancy” in which she models a linear time line by “[reorganizing] information from the catalogues in order to pose questions about biographical form.” But unlike Subrin, Willis had an all access pass to Woodman’s diaries, photographs, some of which have never been exhibited, and her family – the three together trace the artist’s early life and death.
Growing up in an artist household – mother Betty a ceramist who has shown at the Met and father George, a painter who has exhibited work at the Guggenheim – both Francesca and her brother Charlie spent much of their time in and out of their parents studios. “Our children learned that art is a very high priority; you don’t mess around. They learned this is a very serious business at an early age,” George Woodman says as he sits near one of his paintings. The family spent time between Colorado and Italy with Francesca and Charlie switching back and forth between schools. As an act of defiance as a teenager, Francesca enrolled in the Abbot Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts – her father gave her a camera to take with her.
Francesca quickly began photographing herself and her friends, often in the nude. Willis interviewed childhood friends who expressed their perplexity at the time. But, George and Betty were not phased by her daughter’s comfort in front of the camera; “I looked at Francesca’s photographs almost more as formally what they were rather than getting myself tied into knots over the subject matter. I don’t see them as autobiographical but I guess in some way all the work we make is autobiographical; it’s about us,” explains Betty.
Between the years 1975 – 1978 she created some of the iconic photos we know today while an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating she moved to New York where she briefly worked as a fashion photographer’s assistant. The use of her journal as a partial narrator gives an intimate look into her troubling final years. Towards the end of her life she struggled to create work and seemed dissatisfied with the lack of notoriety she was receiving.
Towards the end of the film we see the family continuing with their artistic practices. When asked how the loss of their daughter affected their work Betty says that they have each “dealt with it in different ways.” Although Betty took a break from creating work George shifted his practice to photography – creating unsettling images of young naked women that resemble his daughter’s work.
Willis is really able to build a great tension – the film can really make you feel uncomfortable at times. Preconceived notions of a privileged artist family can be hard to avoid. Although I feel as a director he strived to present his subjects in the best light they do not always come off that way. The inevitable jealousy of Francesca’s fame comes up several times in the film. Handling the estate themselves, the family has seen her work eclipse theirs. But candid statements of their frustration humanizes the family who come off a bit disconnected at times. While sitting near the family’s pool George expresses his concerns, “She was so good; she made my own work look kind of stupid…I wouldn’t mind getting a bigger slice of cake myself.”