Francesca Woodman Long Exposure technique – Writing and thoughts

A writing i did recently 
Key words:  Event – time / photography / duration / reduction and imprinting of an event / long exposure technique enabling to save and imprint time / long exposure deform and create a new sculpture.

In expressing, her opinion on Harold Rosenberg’s, Tradition of the New (1994), the author and critic Mary McCarty (cited in Thierry De Duve-, 1978) said that, “You cannot hang an event on the wall, only a picture.” It seems however; that when referring to, the Photographic work of Francesca Woodman there is no doubt that we are talking about ’an event- a time image’, rather than just a ‘simple picture’. In photography there are two ways of perceiving an image, either interpret it as an autonomous representation of something with no meaning and life or as a life event that happened to be magically frozen, captured and then absorbed in a singular paper, yet continuing to suggest its durational character. In this chapter I will be introducing this very moment that the camera captures the picture, enclosing within its body all that it manages to gather from the scene. There is indeed much more occurring in the photograph: a passage of time, a mystery and a magical ability of merging both past present and future in a single paper.

When speaking about photography we are simultaneously speaking about the tracing of time. Subjectively, what results the picture is the durational time where the camera’s shutter remains open exposing the photograph in both ‘space’ and ‘time’. Having this in mind we may assume that all photographs are to be considered durational. To quote John Szarkowski (2003,p.101):“There is in fact not such thing as an instantaneous photograph. All photographs are time exposures of shorter or longer duration, and each describes a discrete parcel of time.” Therefore, the most evident examples of ‘durational images’ are the long exposures. In these cases, the shutter speed remains open and exposed a longer period of time, thereby records an ensemble of moments in one single frame.

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Fig 4: Francesca Woodman 1976 House#3 Providence, Rhodes Island Black & White Photograph, Gelatine Silver print on paper

Let us examine this very durational characteristic in the work of Francesca Woodman by referring to the House #3 Providence, 1976 (figure 4) .We are now transferred in a small-abandoned room situated in the heart of Rhodes in Greece. Pieces of broken objects still remain scattered on the floor. The walls that seemed more surrendered and eroded in time than ever before are now witnessing a strange scenario. In the ‘crime scene’, the photographic camera captures the young artists holding a piece of wallpaper and tries to become one with the background wall. And suddenly, the photographic camera performs its task it and captures the scene.

On investigating Francesca Woodman’s journal we observe that she characterizes this particular long exposure (figure 4) as a ‘portrait of legs and time’. This evokes the wording by the Photographer, William Fox Talbot (as cited in Chris Townsend, 2006) when he described the photograph’s ability to capture ‘the injuries of time’. Indeed, what the above picture portrays is the ‘merciless of time’…The now cracked walls and pieces of wallpaper scattered around; bear witness that at previous more glorious years there was life in this old mansion. Her hair starts to become one with the dusty wall and her fragile body is gradually transforming into a ghostly presence. It appears as if we were to be present at the scene, we would have witnessed the artist disappearance. What we have now in our hands, is a photograph depicting a decisive moment that Barthes (1974,p.73) names as the ‘Hieroglyph’; a moment, which shows what happened in the past but simultaneously, portends part of the future. This means therefore, that when talking about photography we cannot avoid talking about ‘time’ since these two consist of two interrelated notions, where one seems to expand and intermingle with the other.

If we may return to the work mentioned before (figure 4), we can clearly notice the durational time where the scene was exposed in front of the photographic lens. The photographer presses the button…and there she is, siting underneath the window, wrapped with the piece of paper in an effort to become invisible. She is sitting there for some seconds, minutes, or maybe hours, when suddenly a sonorous ‘click ‘ pierces the room. The Photographic lens still pointing at this scene has now finished what it started. It has been trying, for some time now, to collect as much of the event occurring in one single frame and it did it! All these moments that belong to the past are now depicted in one piece of paper.

In the Rhetoric of the Image, Ronald Barthes“(1964,p.44), speaks on this bond, of time and photography, suggesting a new way in which space and time might be classified, “an illogical conjunction of the here- now and here-then”. The photograph therefore suggests the capture of an event occurring in the past or as what Bathes calls, ‘the having been of an object’ .By pressing the ‘trigger’ of the camera, the scene and the living subject are automatically logged in the past, frozen and ‘imprisoned’ in a single paper.

Photography therefore does not only become a witness of the moment but also a witness of the sitter’s death, since the moment where the photograph is captured has already vanished and will never return. As the author and critic, Susan Sontag (1977,p154) explains in her book ‘On Photography’, the time character of these particular category of images generate a stencil of the real “the footprint and the death mask have been left behind what made them has moved on”. This sums up the impenetrable binding of the object in time, in both past and future. Interestingly, the translation of the word ”capture’ ‘in the Greek Language. The word ”Aποθανατίζω” (pronounced as ‘apothanatizo’-to capture) is a compound world which hides inside it the synthetic ‘από’ (apo)- a synthetic word that is used for correlations, and the world ‘θάνατος’ (thanatos)-Death, meaning ”consummating something/eliminate any trace of life which refers to the theory of Barthes about the death of the sitter’’.

By examining the quality of time in Francesca Woodman’s work, we can assume that the photographic time portrays something more than a simple recall of the past, such as what Barthes suggests. We could perhaps approach the photographic time by the notions that Thierry De Duve suggests in the Time Exposure and Snapshot: The photograph as paradox. In one hand, the notion of the event-like and in the other of the picture-like, in other words, what we know as snapshot and time exposure. Speaking on the time exposure, De Duve (1978, p.116) states that, it “liberates an autonomous and recurrent temporality, which is the time of remembrance. In this case the image resembles a specific time of the past, acting like a reminder of old times .It therefore depicts a state, not an event. Photographs that belong in this notion invoke the viewers’ interaction in order to perceive them. On the other hand when we are talking about a snapshot, we are talking about a moment happened to be frozen in a single paper, a static representation of an event that betrays a taste of the durational time of the event depicted.

It was a late afternoon…Even the smallest amount of light emerging through the window seemed enough to illuminate and warm up the small house situated in the heart of Rome. The room now seems more haunted than ever before! The scratched walls and the few objects scattered in space seemed to witness the merciless of the time. A mysterious sense in the atmosphere gave the impression that something has been haunting the house for a long time. And suddenly, a shiver travels down your spine when you come to realize that three ghostly presences -three angels, are emerging from the wreckage, witnessing that there is still life presence in the house…The two angels in the middle of the photograph hover in space facing each other, and a little bit further to the right, another ghostly figure that this time seem more human, wearing a beautiful white dress gives a recital in the eyes of those watching.

If we now consider Woodman’s work, we can assume that the work she produces, mainly consists of snapshots. Looking at the above image, we can say that although the image is a snapshot of a real event/performance, the camera seems that it captured a few more moments of the durational time of that event, making the picture seem unreal. In real life we would not be able to see the artist’s body fading in the background walls. Therefore, what the camera is showing is something that comes in contrast with what we perceive as a logical posture. In other words, it shows what De Duve explains us ‘an unperformed movement and impossible posture’. What the lens managed to achieve is a small element of narrative explanation that we can also see simultaneously with one single glance. Time does not stand still; it keeps moving forward from ever since and yet continues with the same flow till eternity. It is as if we (the viewers) are late to witness the event but yet appeared to early in the scene, it seems like the artist was preparing something to show us but we walked in the backstage too soon. To quote De Duve (1978,p113) “the snapshots refers to the fluency of time without conveying it “. The image projects a narrative rather than just a pose. The camera may have managed to preserve a part of its durational time, but therefore in my mind this did not seem to stop the events entire duration. Consequently, I feel that in this same room there are still these young presences walking around, observing both space and objects.

Having in mind this fixed bond of time and photography, it would be perhaps interesting to consider the Peter Woolen’s approach on the ‘duration time’. In the essay Fire and Ice, (1984) the English theorist, speaks about the notion of time in both Photography and Film. Speaking on photography he suggests that Photography is like ‘Ice’ it freezes and preserves a fragment of time of the past. As the water needs to be zero degrees Celsius in order to freeze, he proposes that the same thing happens with the moment captured, as it is of near-zero duration, therefore this moment is doomed to be longed to the past (‘then’). This contrasts with the viewer’s now, since, the viewer can observe the photograph for as long as he wants. In the next chapter I aim to introduce this relationship between the time-image and viewer by addressing accounts related to the spectators psychological aspects, hence I will suggest the importance of their contribution in the interpretation of the work.

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