In this talk I give an interpretation of Francesca Woodman’s photography. This interpretation is based on Ernst Kapp’s philosophy of technology. Therefore, it is a theoretical contribution to the field of visual art as well as a contribution to philosophy.
Francesca Woodman was as artistically active in the years from 1973 to 1981. After her suicide in 1981 she left a numerous photographs, which have only been partly presented to the public. Her photographs show the female body, mainly self-portraits, staged in abandoned places. Her body is shown blurry, fading, hidden under props, and fused with spatial surroundings. With the statement that Woodman exhibits an “obsessive engagement with her own disappearing”, cultural and literary scholar Elisabeth Bronfen gives an accurate description of Woodman’s photographic oeuvre. Nevertheless the interpretations of Woodman’s photography are ambiguous: Interpreters tried to understand her photographs as visual suicide notes, as statement about the female body in visual art as well as a photographic engagement with psychoanalysis etc.
I am interested in exploring the relationship between the disappearing body and the visible props. Woodman’s photography suggests that she was very aware in choosing and staging her props and therefore my interpretation refers to more than just the body. In her photo series A woman. A mirror. A woman is a mirror for a man (1975–78), Woodman shows her body jammed in between a mirror, a wooden mirror frame and a glass plate. In Eel (1977–78) Woodman curls around a bowl with an eel inside. An untitled photograph (1979–80) shows Woodman holding a big leaf skeleton against her back and the leaf reminds viewers of the human spine. I think that these objects are far more than just visual metaphors, chosen because of their formal or visual similarity. I want to suggest that Woodman interprets her body by using certain props. If her photographs are understood as testimonials of a factual disappearance, the objects would remain and remind of the disappeared body.
The theoretical background for this interpretation is derived from Ernst Kapp’s philosophy of technology. In the late 19th century Kapp tried to conceptualise human beings based on a theory of technology. He describes human organs as subconscious archetypes for the production of technical tools. Whenever humans produce tools, they just reproduce themselves. This relation is called organ projection. Using a tool allows to interpret one’s own nature. I intend to relate Kapp’s concept of tools to Woodman’s use of props.