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George Lange, Francesca Woodman
Images courtesy of George Lange

George Lange’s photos of Francesca Woodman shake her melancholic myth

Back in the 1970s, Lange took photographs of his friend that show Woodman in a light we’ve rarely seen. Here he shares some unseen images and speaks about their time together

Francesca Woodman is famed for her extraordinary output of haunting black and white portraits of herself and occasionally other models. She frequently photographed herself nude, often with an object, a mirror or a piece of furniture obscurring her body or face. She is known for long-exposures, which imprinted her film with ghostly figures. Many of her frames have a lingering sense of melancholy, a myth only furthered by the fact that at 22, in 1981, after suffering from depression, Woodman took her own life when she jumped out of the window of the loft in New York City.

Five years previously, in 1976, now established photographer, George Lange was studying at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where he met Woodman as a fellow student. The two became friends and, both budding artists, would take pictures of one another. The pictures Lange made with Woodman are a stark contrast to those she took of herself. In Lange’s, Woodman is relaxed and jovial. She is Francesca Woodman, a young woman hanging out with friends, her hair wrapped in a towel as she tucks into what looks like a bowl of cereal. In another, she applies mascara, and, elsewhere, stands in front of the mirror, beaming, wearing a furry hat, and holding what looks to be Lange’s hand, who is out of shot. Some are even in colour, like one where she is clothed and sitting in the bath, her hand clasped to her neck.

“Francesca has been perceived under this very dark cloud of how she died,” says Lange, speaking to me over Zoom and wearing a t-shirt printed with a picture he took of him and Woodman together, laughing. “My relationship with her was silly – we used to do all these silly things. She had this really high pitched voice and this funny little laugh. That was my relationship with her. She wasn't this tortured soul – I didn't know that person.”

Lange’s recollection of a young Woodman was that she was “fragile” and “one of those friends you could not have many of”, but, artistically, she was the “real deal”.

Woodman’s parents, George and Betty, were both artists, her father a painter and photographer and her mother a ceramicist and sculptor. She was raised in a household where artists such as David Hockney would come and stay and she spent many of her summers in her parents’ country house in Florence, Italy, creating much of her work there

While at RISD, Woodman lived two blocks away from Lange and his friend Sloane and she would frequently stop by to use their bathroom, eat, and hang out. She would slip invites under their door, and when she was away, send notes scribbled on the back of nude photographs, all of which Lange collected in a box, alongside the images they took together.

When Woodman left RISD for New York, she left behind piles of images and contact sheets and told her friends to go and take what they wished from her flat. Lange took his camera with him and made some photographs of the space itself, which looked like a tornado had swept through. He grabbed some pictures of himself and some contact sheets. After that, Lange says they kept in touch a bit and saw each other a couple of times in New York but not a huge amount.

In 1981, Woodman died and the figure that the public came to know through her immense posthumous success was that of the tortured artist.

“My relationship with her was silly... She wasn’t this tortured soul – I didn’t know that person” – George Lange

Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver launched an exhibition (with accompanying book by Rizzoli) which was curated by Director, Nora Burnett, in collaboration with Lange. Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation ran from September 2019 to April 2020 and featured both Lange and Woodman’s images, alongside postcards, letters, notes, and other ephemera. The show chose not to enter into discussions around her death, or why she died, but portrayed a moment that Lange shared with her.

Lange says: “All this stuff has been written about her that is all the people know. What I would suggest is not using (my work) to tell Francesca’s whole story, but using it more as the (idea) that even in complicated lives or lives that we think that are dark, there’s a lot of light there.”

From May to June, the images also showed in an online exhibition by Danziger Gallery (limited edition prints are still available). A few days before it closed, Lange joined me on Zoom for a long chat to talk about his and Woodman’s time together. In the gallery above, he has also shared images of their time together including some pictures have never been seen before.

George Lange: I’ve had this wild career and I’ve photographed all these very famous people. My hero growing up and my (now) photographic mentor is Duane Michaels. When I was in college, I went to see him at MIT. I recorded this talk on a cassette recorder and I hand wrote the entire thing out. It took me a week. Years later, I would run into Duane in New York and he’d say, ‘George, call me up. My number’s in the phone book’. And I would say to him, ‘I can’t call you up – you’re Duane Michaels!’ And now, in the last two years we’ve become friends. He’s 88 now.

Oh, wow. 

George Lange: The idea of connecting in person is really powerful. When I’m taking pictures, that’s all that I’ve been interested in. When I moved back to Pittsburgh, I realised that I had a very happy childhood. There was this very specific feeling of joy that I had growing up. Unconsciously, I went out in the world and I tried to recreate that feeling every day. 

I was taking all these pictures and being published in many of the top magazines all over the world, then everything went straight to storage. I didn’t even know what makes a ‘George Lange picture’ except that I enjoyed taking them and I earned a good living. When my mother was sick a couple of summers ago, I came back to Pittsburgh for several months, and I tapped into that feeling (of childhood joy). (I realised) it was a very specific thing that I’ve been doing my whole career. Here’s Kate Spade behind her desk, painting her toenails – there’s that feeling. Here’s Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett dressing up as each other – there’s that feeling. Here’s the cast of Friends all in separate boxes up on a wall, or Kramer from Seinfeld, walking a pigeon on a leash – there’s that feeling. It all just suddenly made sense. I started creating this box last winter of prints from the archive and it was a huge revelation to me because I had never understood what connected all these pictures.

So, tying it into Francesca, Francesca has been perceived under this very dark cloud of how she died. My relationship with her was silly – we used to do all these silly things. She had this really high pitched voice and this funny little laugh, and that was how I remember her. She wasn’t this tortured soul – I didn’t know that person. Partly because that’s not the way that I see the world and that’s not what I find in people. That’s not what I’m looking for. But it was also because there was this other side of her too. So many people, especially that commit suicide, it defines who they are.

There’s a very famous civil rights lawyer in the states named Bryan Stevenson who helps juvenile kids sentenced to jail for the rest of their lives to get out. His point is that we are not the worst thing we ever did. That’s not who we are. That’s something that we did, it’s not everything we are. The fact that Francesca committed suicide is not who she was. It was something that happened at the end of her life. Yes, she was obviously depressed and had a lot of issues, but there was so much more to her life. We had this friendship. She would send me little notes to come to tea at her house or she would send prints through the mail that she would write these crazy notes on. I took pictures of her and we took pictures of each other. I put those all in a box with the letters.

When she left RISD, she had this loft that is the canvas you know from her pictures. It’s the set that all of her pictures at RISD were taken, which are most of her famous pictures. It didn’t have a very good bathroom. It didn’t have a kitchen, she had a hot plate and a toaster oven. But she had this space with this really incredible light and these textures, and those are her pictures.

(One day) she said, ‘I’m leaving Providence. I left a lot of stuff in my loft, go down and take whatever you want.’ I go down there and the floor is covered with prints, and letters, and artifacts of all these pictures. And the first thing I did was took my own pictures of the scene, because it was so intense, and then I grabbed some prints and threw them in a box and thought nothing of it. A couple other people came down and took a couple of prints. Those prints are now worth tens of thousands of dollars, but most of them were probably thrown out.

When she left, where did she go?

George Lange: She went down to New York.

Leaving all her stuff behind, just leaving, was that the kind of person she was?

George Lange: It’s hard. I have a house full of stuff. All that stuff is a burden. And when you’re creating, and when you’re in that place of creation that Francesca was in, then you are deciding what you’re going to keep and what you’re going to throw away all the time.

You were both so young then, were you even thinking about legacy?

George Lange: She was more interested in legacy than most of us. We all wanted to be artists, but Francesca was fully formed when she got to RISD.

Two weeks before her mother died, I went to her loft and I told her about this show (at MCA) that I wanted to do, to open up this box that I had. Before I opened this box, no one had seen a picture of Francesca smiling.

It’s like seeing the artist behind the mask.

George Lange: Right. So we all knew that her work was on a completely different level. I didn’t aspire to be Francesca, I was aspiring to be me – whoever that was. She was doing this work that was just another thing. But she died so young and her parents took that work and created a narrative that was based on who she was.

With Marian Goodman Gallery, that (work) went out in the world and resonated – it still does so powerfully – but the narrative that was created was of a very serious artist. The way they curated her work was magnificent. They did such a good job of sharing her with the world in a way that really resonated, especially with young women artists. So, when I have these pictures of her smiling, it’s kind of against what people thought of her, and it was hard to think of them as art or see where they connected with what has been put out in the world.

“Before I opened this box, no one had seen a picture of Francesca smiling” – George Lange

It’s amazing to see this other side, that she wasn’t just alone in this flat.

George Lange: Yes, but my images and stories are just another chapter to her whole story.

It adds layers to her’s.

George Lange: I kept these pictures in a box and I really didn’t open it for years – there was a feeling that if I kept it closed that Francesca was still alive inside. Two or three years ago, an art buyer from Denver came to visit me at my studio in Boulder, Colarado – where by chance Francesca grew up. We were looking at my own photography and I said, ‘I have something here which might interest you.’ I show her my Francesca box and she just gasps. She said, ‘Do you know what you have here?’ I said, ‘Well, kind of.’ She had the curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver come up to see it and they gave (the pictures an exhibition on) the whole first floor of the museum.

I’ve always been like, ‘where do my pictures fit with Francesca’s and how does this go together?’ My collection of prints is really interesting, but it’s not what you would call like the A-list, most famous Francesca prints. The ones that I have from her... that’s a different kind of collection. And (then there’s the) ones that she sent to me in the mail. So (the museum) put her pictures up with white frames and mine with black frames.

There’s a series of her and her mother shopping in Chinatown (that I took). We just went to lunch one day and they were going through and trying on little Chinese costumes and having lunch. It was a really sweet mother and daughter moment. But you’ve never seen her mother being that maternal or Francesca being a little mama’s girl. So all those pictures and this picture (he points to the t-shirt he’s wearing with the image of him and Francesca together) is what the whole show is about. Just seeing her so disarmed and normal and smiling.

When you walked into the show, there was a gigantic room, and they took one of the pictures I took of Francesca’s loft and did a gigantic vinyl. So you’re walking into her loft, and on the floor are all the pictures. It was so effective and powerful.

Is it emotional for you to look back at those images, to see it in that state, and, with the show, to actually walk back into it?

George Lange: It was really intense the first time that I walked into that room. When Nora Burnett (then curator, now director of MCA) wanted to do this show, I said that there was one condition I wasn’t flexible on, that this show was not ‘the Francesca Woodman story’, it was not her whole biography. It was one slim chapter of my relationship with her. I don’t know why she committed suicide. I don’t want to speculate. I don’t want to think about all the parts of her life that I wasn’t a part of. This is just my piece of it. (The show) was talking about how she lived, not how she died. And not only how she lived, but how she lived when we were together at RSDI. That’s what I think made it so special.

The whole thing is emotional. Francesca was suddenly alive again in that gallery, in that book, and in those pictures, and that is both thrilling and sad.

When you first met her, do you remember what it was like?

George Lange: Peter Kagan – who was a classmate of ours – does. I have a feeling that I had the same experience, I just don’t remember it. He said that we were all in the same class and Francesca came in and put up five pictures of her self portraits of her naked. He said, it made a big impression (laughs). People weren’t taking pictures like that.

You said previously that the class wasn’t very kind to her. Why was that?

George Lange: I think there was definitely some jealousy. It felt to me that the people who were less talented got more time to talk about their work. The class would spend more time trying to understand what the less talented people were doing. Francesca would put her pictures up and we’d spend five minutes (on them). In some ways, I don’t know if Francesca had that much to say about her work. I don’t remember her explaining it. I remember it just oozing and exploding out of her. (With artists) it’s like there’s this voice from inside just pouring out, and you can’t even explain why you’re making these decisions.

Francesca didn’t have a domestic life. No one taught her that... or she wasn’t interested (in it). Her mother was an amazing cook and did really nice dinner parties and brunches. Francesca would do her own version of a tea party, which was all these broken ceramics and you’d sit on the floor. I mean, it was filthy, but it was Francesca’s little tea party – that was charming. But she wouldn’t have any way of making an egg. I don’t even know how our clothes were cleaned, if they were. There are lots of artists that need someone to take care of them because they are handicapped in dealing with a lot of real world things that are easy for us. I’d say Francesca was very much like that. Doing her work was the reason she was alive.

She was consumed by her work?

George Lange: Completely! Trying to deal with students and trying to talk about her work was probably horrible. Her teachers were not supportive of her work. The teacher that she had, Wendy MacNeil, was actually her teacher in prep school, at Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Then Wendy got a job at RISD (but) they didn’t have a good relationship at all.

When you took these photographs of her, and you also photographed yourselves together, you said you didn’t want to take ‘Francesca pictures’ in her flat, can you talk more about that?

George Lange: That’s right. When you were there, it was like you were working on her canvas. I did not want to take a ‘bad Francesca picture’ and I didn’t want to take a ‘good Francesca picture’. I would go there and think, ‘What is my picture in this space?’ I would go to lots of peoples’ spaces and take lots of pictures, but Francesca’s was so specific, so well documented, and used by her in such a specific way that it was intimidating to go into that space. So taking this picture (he points to his t-shirt which has a picture of him and Francesca laughing) in Francesca’s loft, this is totally what our friendship was like. There’s a lot of Francesca in this picture, but she never, ever would have taken this picture. So I didn’t feel like I was trying to latch on to her train.

It’s amazing, because I’d never seen a photograph of her smiling or joking like that.

George Lange: When I went to class, I would have pictures of people smiling and (the critique would be), ‘If someone’s smiling in your picture, it can’t be art.’ There’s a picture I found of Francesca doing her makeup in the mirror and it’s in colour. Even seeing colour in that space...

The one with her hand on her neck is beautiful.

George Lange: That one’s really interesting because Francesca decided that she was going to get a normal apartment with a bathroom and a kitchen. She lived on Main Street and then you would go up Meeting Street, like a block and a half, and that’s where Sloane and I lived. Francesca would come and use the bathroom a lot, take showers. Then if you go up another block, she rented this apartment there, I think it was the second or third floor. I remember going there and a bunch of us took her mattress up to the space. That’s all we took up. We get her mattress up the steps and we took some pictures, and that’s where I took this picture, it was in the bathtub of that apartment. She didn’t even stay there one night. She looks around and says, ‘I’m not staying here’. And she takes the mattress and throws it out the window. I have this picture of the mattress floating down and Francesca throwing it out the window.

The question you asked before, ‘was it very emotional when you walked into that show?’ Do you know what was the emotional part? I felt like I was talking to Francesca. When I walked in there, it was like, ‘Francesca. Look at this. Isn’t this fun?’ You know, like she was alive there with me – that was the emotional part. It’s not thinking back on my own youth or anything, but I felt like I had an obligation to Francesca to do the show right, and I feel like I kept that promise and that’s what I felt the best about.

All this stuff has been written about her that is all the people know. What I would suggest is not using (my work) to tell Francesca’s whole story, but using it more as the (idea) that even in complicated lives or lives that we think that are dark, there’s a lot of light there.

That is definitely the message I took from seeing the pictures of the show and speaking to you about it.

George Lange: She told me when I was standing in the gallery that we were good.

This interview had been edited and condensed. You can read more about Lange’s time with Woodman here

A selection of limited edition prints by George Lange are available from Danziger Gallery now