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  • Neshan Tung

How Francesca Woodman and Nan Goldin’s Work Can Inform Museum Practices

By: Neshan Tung



This article mentions suicide.


Contemporary photographers cannot deny the lasting impact and enormous influence of Francesca Woodman and Nan Goldin. Many are drawn to the intimate, playful, hauntingly layered landscapes of storytelling as well as self and boundary-bending realities created by Francesca; while Nan’s work is striking in its poignantly gritty honesty, allowing ample room for people to relate to Nan and her friends. Francesca and Nan’s work is valuable not only for its innovation within the field of photography and self-portraiture, but also for the legions of people, many of whom are women and LGBTQ+ individuals, who find solace, inspiration, or even catharsis through the work created by the two artists.

Self Portrait, Francesca Woodman. Source.

In the spring of 1964, when Nan was eleven years old, her older sister Barbara laid herself down across the railroad tracks outside Union Station in D.C. Nan in her own words has said: “I thought I had to kill myself at age eighteen. My parents started to treat me like Barbara. At thirteen I wanted to grow up to be a junkie. At fourteen I left home […] At eighteen I started to shoot dope, and shoot pictures. That saved my life.” Over a decade later, on a cold January day in 1981, twenty-two year old Francesca leapt out of her apartment window on the Upper East Side. Francesca's parents, who were artists themselves, recognized Francesca's disillusionment with the cut-throat New York City art world. Even so, her mother Betty has said: “her life wasn’t a series of miseries. She was fun to be with. It’s a basic fallacy that her death is what she was all about, and people read that into photographs. They psychoanalyze them. Young people in particular often feel she’s talking about them, somehow. They see the photographs as very personal. But that’s not the way I approach them. They’re often funny.”

Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983. Nan Goldin.

Francesca’s lively creative output is marked by phantasmagoric self-portraiture and remarkable experimentation with different photographic techniques (such as slow shutter speed, double exposure, deliberate blurriness). Much of her work is playful yet sophisticated in its corporeal exploration of concepts like gender, femininity, humour, identity, eroticism, and the melting of boundaries between different selves and realities. Nan was heavily influenced by Francesca's work, although her documentation expanded to include her friends and family. Nan's work also explores LGBTQ+ subcultures, domestic violence, sexuality and the HIV/Opioid epidemics. Still a practicing photographer, Nan's work is and remains immensely influential for kickstarting autobiographical/confessional photography.

Untitled [Self Portrait, Boulder, Colorado], c. 1972-75.

Francesca Woodman. Source.

Interpretations of Francesca and Nan’s work are often coloured by their personal tragedies. They have been mythologized in many ways with grandiose statements of an elusive “artistic genius” that is stereotypically fostered most intensely by emotional turmoil or mental illness. Museums tend to tread the delicate line between contextualizing and romanticizing – which requires avoiding sweeping difficult and important topics under the rug, while also recognizing the broader scope, versatility, and complexities involved in the production of the work.

Even though some level of projection is bound to occur by admirers (which is not necessarily always a bad thing); rather than expound on mythologies of tragedy and romantic ideals of “artistic genius,” museums have the chance to authentically engage with difficult subjects to raise questions and cultivate a critical awareness and appreciation of complexity instead of providing definitive answers or settling for static portrayals. The rich and layered bodies of work created by Francesca and Nan are perhaps more relevant today than they have ever been. Their work has the potential to foster empathy and to reach those who need to see it most-- To allow people to know themselves better, to feel seen, inspired and to forge a deep sense of connection; both with themselves and others.

Heart-Shaped Bruise, New York City, 1980. Nan Goldin.


Goldin, Nan. "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency." Aperture Foundation Inc., 1986.


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