The Woodmans

December 22, 2011


Scott Willis


About the Documentary

The Woodmans are a family of well-known artists bonded in their belief of art-making as the highest form of expression. But for their daughter Francesca — one of the late 20th century’s most recognized and influential photographers — fame came only after a tragedy that would forever scar the family. With unrestricted access to all of Francesca’s photographs, private diaries and experimental videos, The Woodmans traces the story of a family broken and then healed by their art.

George and Betty Woodman met as young artists in the 1950s. Betty, a Jewish ceramicist from Boston; and George, an abstract painter and professor from an “ultra WASP” New Hampshire family, discovered a commitment to sharing a life in art that transcended their differences, and prevailed over George’s disapproving family. Soon after starting a family of their own, Betty and George moved to Boulder, Colorado. First Charles, and then also Francesca grew up immersed in art, eating off of plates and bowls that Betty made in her home studio, and surrounded by George’s canvases. They learned to think of art as a serious business, something that required constant, committed work.

Gradually and inevitably the children began to make art of their own.

The family spent summers in Florence, Italy, where young Francesca wandered museums and became obsessed with paintings of women in elaborate, formal attire. She filled sketchbooks with drawings and began keeping a journal. Even among her childhood friends she was seen as precocious and uncommonly determined, and on her own initiative she left home for boarding school. Suddenly at a remove from her family, she discovered and fell in love with photography, and quickly developed an advanced, mature style, becoming her own nude model in complex, textured environments. At 17, she arrived at the Rhode Island School of Design like a rock star who had sophistication and ambition to spare.

But it was the late 1970s, photography wasn’t as hot as it would later become, and though Francesca gained the respect of classmates, faculty, and colleagues, she struggled for recognition and to earn a living. While in New York, she took on office work, odd jobs, and worked as a photographer’s assistant. Drawing on her childhood obsession, she did fashion photography, trailblazing a stylish, sensual aesthetic that would later become an industry standard.

Eager to jumpstart their respective careers, in 1980 George and Betty joined Francesca in New York. But it soon became apparent that their daughter was in the throes of depression. Unhappy in love, unable to work, she became withdrawn and attempted suicide. She recovered, but not for long. The psychic costs of being an artist proved to be too great.

In the years that followed Francisca’s death, Betty and George processed their loss, regret, and grief in different ways. Betty stopped working, then suddenly started again, her work shifting from functional pots to exuberant, color-filled, non-functional abstraction. George, on the other hand, moved from abstraction to the figural, taking up photography and incorporating Francesca’s work into his own. Brother Charles continues to work with video, integrating video imagery with live performance and music.

After her death, Francesca’s photographs have been recognized as among the most important and distinctive of her time; maintaining her legacy has become a major part of her parents’ lives. Even as they work to honor her work, they remain individually ambitious and competitive. After more than 50 years of marriage, George and Betty stick together, and stick to making and living with art.


The Filmmaker

Scott Willis
Scott Willis is a 30-year veteran of the news, current affairs and documentary world. He is the winner of 11 Emmys and two DuPont Columbia awards for television documentaries that range from the fall of the Soviet Empire to the rise of the Clinton years. Willis had a 27-year career with ABC News working his way from producer in the Middle East and London to senior producer of Nightline and executive producer of ABC News primetime series.

Full Credits


  • 2012 Emmy Award

    Outstanding Arts & Culture Programming

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Is mental illness more common in artists than the general population? Can one's muse also be one's downfall?


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