Currently on view at the de Young and SFMOMA are two significant photography exhibitions—Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks and Francesca Woodman, respectively. In this rare, behind-the-scenes look at the curatorial process, Julian Cox (of the de Young) and Corey Keller (of SFMOMA) discuss the elusive issues of artistic intention and practice, the mythology of the artist, and the position of Meatyard and Woodman in the history of photography.
Julian Cox: Both Woodman and Meatyard are very deliberate in their picture making—can you comment on that from the Woodman side?
Corey Keller: What's interesting to me about Woodman is the way she oscillates between pictures that are very carefully plotted out (complete with preparatory sketches), and those that are made in spontaneous response to a situation. And yet the line between these two bodies of photographs is almost indistinguishable.
JC: Where do you think that difference in picture making comes from?
CK: For Woodman I think it stems from some kind of inner conflict about her own working method. The more I learn about Woodman, the less I understand, which is incredibly frustrating. She was so sophisticated about what it meant to be an artist (due to her family background) and yet so young and, dare I say it, immature on so many other levels that there's this inner conflict bubbling up.
JC: And her youth allowed her to be so expressive with that conflict?
CK: I just think it was who she was, what drove her forward in a way.
JC: Do you mean that she was wearing her conflict on her sleeve?
CK: The thing that speaks to me most powerfully in Woodman's work is the palpable urgency in it. It's not an idle undertaking. There's a real need there.
JC: Agreed. That urgency comes through in the action, motion and performance that are so evident in her work. And you're saying that's in large part reflective of who she is?
CK: I think there's something peculiar to her age that makes those things indistinguishable. She doesn't have the distance that comes only with maturity to draw back and consider more soberly.
JC: We've been talking about Woodman as a singular, solitary personality, but your exhibition includes many pictures that feature other people or models. They are so interesting and among the stronger pictures in the show, so we know that she did not operate in complete isolation.
CK: So true, and so little considered in her work. She said that she was her own model out of convenience, but it’s obviously much more complicated than that. And the shutter was often pushed by a friend, so there is a collaborative aspect that is often invisible.
JC: Before we get to Meatyard, I want to ask you about the use of space in Woodman’s pictures–how she organizes and orchestrates it. What I'm trying to get at is a discussion around the space that she puts between herself and the viewer, and the fact that her placement of herself, in particular, is so careful and specific.
CK: This was an explicit concern of hers. As much as she ever talked specifically about what she was driving at, this was something that concerned her greatly. It's all the more interesting when you consider she wasn't looking through the viewfinder at the time the shutter was released–she becomes both a formal and a psychological element within the frame. It does seem to me that the square format has a great deal to do with the way space is configured in Woodman's photographs, as well as Meatyard's.
JC: Yes. One of the unmistakable aspects of Meatyard's pictures is how he fills the frame corner-to-corner, top to bottom. Unlike Woodman, Meatyard seldom appears in his pictures, and was always behind the camera orchestrating every square inch of what was in front of him.
CK: Yes, they both use the format to imbue their photographs with an unmistakable psychological charge. Their attention to the relationship of the center to the edges of the frame, which becomes so fraught in a square format, is critical.
JC: And remember, Meatyard was trained as an optician. He understood lenses and the technology of the camera very well and was able to pre-visualize his compositions to a high degree.
CK: Right, I hadn't thought about that at all. Which is a completely opposite perspective than that brought by Woodman who cared not a fig about her equipment or technical questions. She didn't work with that kind of precision.
JC: Yes, we're talking about the difference between "expressiveness" and perhaps a more cerebral, systematic approach to picture making–at least in some respects.
CK: Agreed. And I'm not sure if that can be accounted for by the difference in age, or the difference in context (Woodman was, after all, an undergraduate art student), or simply that they are different artists. Also, their historical moments, though proximate, are different. Woodman was working at a time when the kind of photograph she made was appreciated, whereas Meatyard had to wait for it.
JC: So well said. Yes, this is a complex discussion with the contextual conditions of each artist's production being so different. Meatyard, for example, earned a 9 to 5 living every day, and photographed predominantly on weekends. So his evolving ideas about photography and picture making were executed in a kind of high-octane downtime environment.
CK: Right, Woodman's only job was to make photographs, and it was completely tied to her evolving sense of identity.
JC: For Meatyard, there was something very freeing about making pictures and at the same time it was a vocation that he took very seriously.
CK: I don't think Woodman found it freeing at all, to be honest. Almost the opposite.
JC: So are you saying that Woodman was in some ways captive to her art?
CK: I realize that I am verging dangerously close to psychoanalysis, but I do think that her art making had a compulsive aspect to it. She chafed at RISD and wanted to get out of there. I don't think she found it stimulating at all.
JC: I think the photographs suggest that compulsiveness very plainly. And as for RISD, it seems to me that the pictures and your elegant installation show quite clearly that she was a bit of a fish out of water there.
CK: A friend of hers showed me a snapshot of her in front of the student union or some similar building. All the other RISD students are wearing LL Bean down parkas and she is wearing a thrift store cape and one of her funny hats.
JC: That says it all.
CK: It's a great picture. So droll and also a little sad.
JC: You said that there are so many unanswered questions about Woodman, so can you comment on how you see her fitting in to the history of photography? Or is it simply too early to say?
CK: I think there is probably more than one answer to that question. You could consider how she was discovered and received within a context of feminist art history. You could also look at her as a product of the 1970s, in which case, the link to Meatyard is perhaps more germane.
JC: But because Woodman’s life was cut short, I think the true implications of what she was doing during the 1970s are inconclusive because we don't get to read the end of the sentence.
CK: That is for certain. Despite her career's brevity, her influence remains significant. Particularly for students, even today.
JC: Indeed. I want to return to the question of audience. One of the things about Woodman that strikes me is how insistently she seems to be reaching towards an audience for her pictures. Is that an accurate observation?
CK: Yes, I believe it is, but maybe not for the reasons one might think.
JC: Do tell.
CK: She craved recognition (she had that in common with Meatyard). She knew that being an artist was more than making art, it was being recognized by the system and she worked ferociously for that recognition.
JC: I don't see Meatyard the same way at all. He was certainly extremely serious about what he was doing, but I would argue that he produced his work without much regard for a public audience.
CK: I claim no expertise on Meatyard's work, but it had always been part of the mythology that he felt overlooked by the history of photography. There's that great story—perhaps apocryphal—of his pasting one of his own photos into Newhall's History of Photography because he had been left out.
JC: That is a true story, but at that point (in the late 1950s) how much history had really been written? Meatyard did have relationships with some of the key figures in the photography world in the 50s and 60s, but he did not really "play" them in a strategic way. He cared about how he was positioned, but it did not detract from or influence his practice.
CK: I agree—there is a definite distinction. I just think it's interesting that one of the myths we're left with about Meatyard (whether it is true or not) is this sense of a slightly outsider position and that it was not entirely willful.
JC: Yes, both artists were "outsiders" but in quite different ways.
What connections do you see between these two photographers? Francesca Woodman is on view at SFMOMA through February 20 and Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks closes at the de Young on February 26. Tonight at 7 pm, join Corey Keller for a panel discussion on the subject of Francesca Woodman Now.