Her concealed figures, however, call to mind corpses, or ghosts, as if the wall between our world and the spirit realm had begun to fall. In her images, dust abounds, and there are no new buildings, only ruins, whose disintegrating forms evoke the wrecks admired by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic revivalists often cited as major influences. The out-of-focus figures are faint and friable-seeming, and Woodman’s gray tones as powdery as crumbling stone. “To Die,” reads the inscription on a Victorian tombstone that appears in one of Woodman’s early images, “is Gain.”
Her work was first introduced to the public at a Wellesley College exhibition that opened in 1986, five years after her suicide. At the time, much significance was attached to its apparently autobiographical qualities, which continue to intrigue audiences today. Her death does not simply cast a shadow on the images, but suffuses them with a strange, spectral light, in which everyone looks like Woodman—photographs of models are frequently mistaken for self-portraits—and facts resemble foresight. The artist seems always to be anticipating her own disappearance. In one of her first genuine self-portraits, which she produced as a boarding school student in the early 1970s, Woodman creeps naked from the forest, eyes closed. In another, taken a few years later, it appears that the roots of a tree on a riverbank are seizing her naked body from the water—or that she is transforming into a tree herself, her pale, flowing hair and slender leg as soft and tentacular as roots. The tree, whose trunk seems to emit a white, alien light, is in a graveyard.
The same graveyard can be seen in an earlier untitled piece, in which Woodman crawls naked through an opening in a tombstone, her moving body captured on camera as a misty blur, as if she were as insubstantial and inhuman as the air around her. It is the earliest example of the technique that became one of her trademarks: by using slow shutter speeds, she gave her subjects time to move, and on film motion tends to obliterate the thing moving. In later images—produced as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, and afterwards in Italy and Manhattan—flesh appears as fog, vapor evaporating or being absorbed by its surroundings. In one 1976 photograph, a girl seems to float, like smoke, inside a fireplace. In another, taken a year later, she melts into—or perhaps emerges from—the wallpaper. Like the early Colorado picture, both are long exposures. Woodman referred to the series as “ghost pictures.”