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Francesca Woodman’s blueprints

Writer / Nancy Breslin

Nancy Breslin visits Francesca Woodman’s exhibition and discovers diazotypes.

Caryatid diazotype by Francesca Woodman
Diazotype by Francesca Woodman, from sfmoma.org

I recently visited a show of work by Francesca Woodman at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. For those who aren’t familiar with her, she was a photographer who died in 1981 at the age of 22, leaving work which focused on the female form, including self-portraits, that were often dreamlike through the use of long exposures, mirrors, and headless cropping. Both the quantity and quality of the work surprised me: this was not edited from a 50 year career, yet image after image was fascinating. (I had a quite different reaction to the Cartier-Bresson show at MoMA recently, where I was struck that the majority of displayed images were quite unremarkable.)

Most of Woodman’s work was in the form of relatively small black and white prints, although she did experiment with larger scale for several projects. The most striking of these were life-size “caryatid” diazotype prints, referred to in some of the wall text as “blueprints.” I wasn’t familiar with diazotypes. It is a direct positive, dry-development process. A full size positive is contact printed to paper treated with diazonium salt and a dye coupler. UV light breaks down the salt, and subsequent alkaline treatment (via ammonium hydroxide fumes) causes expression of the dye in unexposed areas, creating the image. It was one means of duplicating architectural drawings. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiteprint)

Woodman’s diazotypes are beautiful. They are also apparently a bit of a conservation nightmare. The paper was thin and designed for transient use, as further UV exposure will degrade the image. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also currently has Woodman diazotypes on display, in the form of a huge work called “Temple Project,” collaged from almost 30 diazotype prints. Conservation of this piece is discussed at http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v21/bp21-05.pdf.

Woodman’s work was incredibly mature for an artist of her age. One can only imagine what would have emerged if she had lived to have a full career.

4 thoughts on “Francesca Woodman’s blueprints

  1. Great article, Nancy! I saw the show when it came to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, and Woodman’s diazo prints were my favorite thing there.

    I studied and worked in architecture in the 1980s and ’90s, when diazo prints were commonly used in schools and in construction. I “ran” hundreds of diazo prints for my classmates in the architecture lab at my college, and handled thousands of professionally printed diazo prints when I worked in an architecture firm. While the ammonia fumes were horrendous and unhealthy (one of the main motivations to eliminate the process here in California), it was delightful to be able to create such huge copies (24″x36 or even 30″x40″) of one’s own translucent paper drawings for a couple of American dollars. (At the time, other reproduction processes could cost hundreds of dollars for a copy of those sizes.)

    The prints were also immediate: there was no waiting, as the machine rolled the diazo paper and the translucent drawing through together against the UV light, making a moving contact print as the papers passed through rollers in the relatively small (but wide) machine, and the fumes developed the image as it came out. I could turn out several a minute on the small, all-manual machine at school; machines at the professional reprographic companies run about one per second with an automated feeder. The machines had varying speeds, with longer exposures for increased density / darkness, and shorter exposures for lighter prints with less background noise.

    The process was also capable of other colors: a sepia brown was popular, as was black (which was notoriously unstable, but suitable for fancy presentations). We used different paper for each color, but all were delicate – only slightly stronger than newsprint.

    I am not sure how Woodman was made positives large enough to produce such enormous contact prints, but they are epic!

    The conservators of this work have my deepest sympathy – it’s tough to preserve work made with such a temporary process on delicate pulp paper.

    Elizabeth Graves

  2. The Temple is amazing! I like her use of a process used to represent architecture graphically to represent architecture photographically at a closer-to-life scale. (I wonder, if she planned to create a 3-D version of this, to take the idea even further…)

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