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Sensual Sites, Dust and Displacement: The Photographic Spaces of Francesca Woodman

LONGDEN, VANESSA (2019) Sensual Sites, Dust and Displacement: The Photographic Spaces of Francesca Woodman. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Author-imposed embargo until 22 November 2025.


This thesis examines Francesca Woodman’s self-representational photography to explore the complex relationship between the body and place. In particular, her staging of abandoned locations highlights the difficulty of making space on the margins of society and holds wider implications for the fields of gender and photographic history.

Woodman’s death by suicide at the age of 22 has led to a predominantly psycho-biographical approach to her work. But I challenge this reading and its linear teleology by re-situating the artist within the socio-economic context of America in the 1970s and early 1980s, emphasising how Woodman’s images converse with other contemporaries, particularly performance, body, and land artists.

The argument is structured around notions of interior, exterior and liminal spaces, focussing on the haptic places, that is, the places she took her photographs which evoke the sense of touch, Woodman encountered throughout her career; namely Boulder, Colorado; Providence, Rhode Island and New York City. The introduction addresses the shortcomings of existing literature, whose artistic biography and ‘prodigal’ status accentuate her apparent displacement.

Chapter One analyses the motif of the house within the context of the women’s movement and the Womanhouse project. Focussing on her use of domestic tropes, I question what it means for Woodman to be ‘at home in dust’. The second chapter concentrates on Woodman and Gordon Matta-Clark’s depiction of distorted liminal spaces, whose material traces challenge Gaston Bachelard’s notion of ‘intimate dwelling space’ by accounting for lived experiences, gender and disorder. The final section explores the trope of woman-as-nature through Woodman’s depiction of the natural landscape. Her hybridisation with the external world attempts to create an alternative space for women’s creative expression among growing concerns for the environment and the Land Art Movement.

If scholars wish to gain increasingly nuanced perceptions of Woodman’s photographs and challenge psychoanalysed notions of her identity, it is essential to question the overarching problem of placement in her oeuvre.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Francesca Woodman; Displacement; Domesticity; Dust; Feeling; Photography; Place; Psychoanalysis; Womanhouse
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Modern Languages and Cultures, School of
Thesis Date:2019
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:22 Nov 2019 13:52

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