Dear Frannie,

I apologize in advance if I sound condescending. I imagine you aren’t the biggest fan of endearing nicknames, and I know you weren’t much younger than I am now when you died, but for some reason I feel compelled to take care of you (even if only posthumously). Did you know that Whitney Houston died yesterday? You didn’t live to see her become a superstar, or addicted to crack, but if there’s a TV or a radio wherever you are, you probably know who she is (I hope you have at the very least seen The Bodyguard). Her death reminded me of you. You didn’t live long enough to have a career like hers. You were barely out of art school. Like a Heath Ledger or Amy Winehouse. A whole lot of potential and possibility drowned by poorly managed (and in their cases, overly medicated) sadness.

Let me first preface this letter by saying that I don’t mean to trivialize the seriousness of depression or the horrible tragedy of your untimely death by writing this letter. It just makes me angry that you didn’t hold on a little longer, just until the inevitable darkness of being in your early-twenties and the feeling of being utterly out of place and totally rejected by everyone finally passed. Because I can tell you from experience, as someone who was self-medicated for most of college and who considered taking the easy way out on more than one particularly agonizing occasion, the pain does eventually lessen.

I wish I could understand why you really did it. Did it seem like a romantic notion at the time? To suffer the same tragic fate as so many tortured talents who lived before you? And as so many have since? Your father says it’s because you were devastated when those pretentious assholes over at the Endowment for the Arts denied you funding. I know that couldn’t be the whole reason. Dads aren’t exactly experts in analyzing the emotions of their 20-something chronically-depressed kids…

Until your retrospective at the SFMOMA (it seems strange to call it that, given that it was your first major show) I had never heard of you or seen your work before. I’ll admit it, Fran, I was skeptical. I mostly expected just another privileged art school girl with well-known art world parents making experimental art school art. And sure, there is some of that. No offense. You didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel with your work. There’s an amateur quality and a self-consciousness to your photographs, the combination of which causes me to relive the awkwardness of adolescence all over again. (Thanks for that). I wish I’d known you back then, for both our sakes. I probably would have wanted to smoke cigarettes together and stroke your long hair and maybe make out a little bit. Do you go that way? For art’s sake?

It’s eerie and sad to see these photos now, knowing that we could have helped one another if there weren’t all those years in between us. I would have reminded you of all your talent and beauty. In the thick of it, it’s hard to see those things sometimes. During my darkest times, the inside of my mind felt like the vast, frigid rooms depicted in your photos. I know you’re gone, but in these relics I read all of your contorted feelings of isolation and longing. I can see your (vaguely erotic) fascination with naked flesh, as well as your need to both celebrate and violate it. Is this what you were thinking about before your death? I guess I’ll never know.

Without the restrictions of time, space, and geography, I think we would have been great friends. We’d find solace in resenting the world together and turn to bitterness to mask our own feelings of rejection. They’d whisper about us, and we’d laugh it off, while gabbing about boy troubles and abortion and who we like best on Sons of Anarchy. But alas all I have of you are these black and white photos and your ghostly legacy. RIP. I’m off to watch the Whitney Houston tribute at the Grammys.

The Francesca Woodman exhibit is on view at the SFMOMA through Feb. 20, 2012.


Jane Helpern

About Jane Helpern

Writer & Over-sharer. @janeohelp