Nancy Breslin visits Francesca Woodman’s exhibition and discovers diazotypes.
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 that 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 the 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 https://cool.culturalheritage.org/publications.html.
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.