Cindy Sherman has spent most of her 62 years using her camera as a way to explore concepts of identity, sexuality, and largely, femininity. Starting out as a painter in 1972, she moved towards photography and began using make-up and costume to create images of herself as various societal archetypes. Usually shooting solo in her New York studio, Sherman assumed the role as author, director, designer and model, often with no knowledge of what she was trying to say but arriving at perceptive social critiques nonetheless. A contemporary master of the cultural zeitgeist, Sherman is now known as one of the most influential and pioneering photographers of her generation.
Pulling inspiration from pop culture imagery, film, fashion and television, the artist challenged the restrictive roles of women in the media and the perpetual objectification of female sexuality. She’s often hailed as a feminist, postmodernist, post-structuralist, and many other labels, but Sherman’s resistance to categorisation has often left somewhat of a question mark over her work. Rising to international notoriety with her series Untitled Film Stills, a Hollywood shape-shifter was born and the world couldn’t help but take notice. While there is a plethora of literature documenting the life, the love and the artistry of Sherman – including her current exhibition Imitation of Life at LA’s The Broad, as well as a new book published by Prestel – this guide will serve you as a handy overview.
“It’s amusing how far someone can stretch my intentions and make a concept that fits their theories” – Cindy Sherman
Sherman’s work was born out of an almost crippling shyness and fear of the outside world. After moving to New York art college, she became aware of how performances outside the home and on the street differed immensely from the comfort of her own apartment. During the 70s and 80s, the photographer withdrew to the safety of her own studio, shooting alone to battle with what she referred to as a social depression. While her images have captured the attention of art critics, scholars and fans alike, an ambiguity that feeds into all of her photographs is perhaps their only homogenous characteristic. Speaking in 1994, Sherman explained: “I often don’t know what I’m going after until after it’s shot. It’s amusing how far someone can stretch my intentions and make a concept that fits their theories.” Furthermore, the artist’s ability to demonstrate the theatricality and artificiality of gendered performance is widely credited her as being a key player in post-structuralist thought.
Bus Riders set a precedent for Sherman’s future projects. The series – which came to fruition in 1976 – was a collection of black and white photographs of herself as a variety of closely observed subjects. As a young woman grappling with big city life, the photographer would meticulously examine fellow commuters on New York’s public transport. Sherman’s capacity to be both the object and the looker is what marked her work from its inception; a narrative that unravels the voyeur-gaze paradigm. Far from trying to be a true replication of reality, Sherman’s crude use of “black face”, hammy costumes and clearly staged scenes disrupts clear processes of self-identification and explores the act of portraiture itself. The images were first exhibited in 2000, 24 years after their creation, at Glen Horowitz Booksellers, along with another series entitled Murder Mystery People.
Although Sherman consistently takes photographs of herself, she has always maintained that they are not self-portraits. Growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, she always loved to play dress-up, and when she was just out of Buffalo State College she abandoned painting and decided to focus on the camera. Surrounded by media images purporting restrictive archetypes of female subjectivity, Sherman began to use the lens as a medium for social critique – often unwittingly. In what grew to be a series of 69 photographs in her genre-defining Untitled Film Stills, the artist assumed the role of housewife, career girl, siren, to name a few, and almost without knowing gave voice to the struggle of second wave feminism. While the movement focused on suffrage and overturning legislature in the 60s, the 70s and 80s saw a move towards the home and the workplace, battling against the labels foisted upon women during this time.
Sherman’s fixation on the lineal space between life and death has permeated almost all of her photo collections. As she tends to focus on the plight of the Caucasian woman, many scholars have taken this to be a comment on both domestic and sexual violence, but it’s more than that. Fear of the unknown and the dark abyss lingers throughout her work and it leaves an uncomfortable taste in your mouth. She previously said: “I guess death is a partial theme… I’m not afraid to die, it’s just the unknown.” While others may find such explorations troubling, Sherman finds them comforting. "Untitled #153", which was auctioned for $2.7 million in 2010, sees a blonde woman lying on the grass, covered in mud, having just been (presumably) killed. Reminiscent of film noir’s punishment of the femme fatale, Sherman opens up a dialogue about society’s voyeuristic obsession with brutality and death.
Sherman’s first solo exhibition was in New York in 1980 at a non-commercial space called Kitchen. As she often challenged the capitalistic drive of the art world, much of her work was initially showcased in non-profit organisations. Untitled Film Stills – perhaps the artist’s most famed collection – was debuted at a grass roots gallery named Artists Space where Sherman herself worked as a receptionist. Among many other notable shows in her unrivalled career, the Museum of Modern Art presented a show in 2012 called Cindy Sherman, which chronicled her work from the 1970s and included more than 170 photographs. Additionally, Sherman’s archives are held at the Tate Gallery in London, as well as many more prestigious institutions such as the Art Institute in Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. Her latest exhibition, Imitation of Life, which engages with the 20th century’s fascination with fame and celebrity, is currently being shown at The Broad, Los Angeles and Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.
The assimilation of feminism with Sherman’s art is problematic, but not incorrect. Her entire lexicon of feminine identities and aversion to objectification clearly champion her as a feminist role model, but she has always maintained that the product precedes the intention. In each picture, rather than deconstructing the relationship between image and identity, Sherman leads the viewer to construct it in their own terms. Judith Williamson, the author of Images of Women, argues: “I don’t think Sherman is a feminist artist or a non-feminist artist. I don’t think it really matters if she has set out to be either.” The ambiguity and performativity of her work means we, as lookers, place our own ideology onto the portraits rather than there being a conscious authorial rhetoric. “As a person, I’m not overtly political,” Sherman told to BBC2. “I think of myself as too wishy-washy to be this heavy feminist, political person. But it does come out in my work.”
“I don’t think Sherman is a feminist artist or a non-feminist artist. I don’t think it really matters if she has set out to be either” – Judith Williamson
Abjection, monstrosity and the grotesque began to appear in Sherman’s photographs more intensely when she moved away from self-portraits and starting playing with plastic and prosthetics. After Untitled Film Stills, Sherman’s work took an arguably darker turn and she started to utilise props and mannequins more heavily. The monstrous feminine began to take form in both her Sex Pictures series and Fairy Tales. Grotesque images of dismembered bodies, pubic hair and traumatised genitalia were just some of the themes that the artist touched on. Exemplified by her 1985 image "Untitled #140", which features her lying on the ground with a pig snout covered in blood, Sherman articulates the uncanny and carnivalesque qualities that are conveyed through fairy tales. During this time, many critics were turned off by the direction her series’ were taking. Her 1994 Comme des Garçons campaign challenged all expectations of fashion photography, seeing the artist transformed into a series of masked, clown-like figures, their limbs oversized and mismatched.
Hollywood and pop culture imagery is the lynchpin of almost all of Sherman’s collections. Growing up in the 50s when television and film were becoming more widely available, she felt there was a limitation to the way women were being represented. The Hollywood starlet – platinum, bored, angry – came to be a central figure in her Untitled Film Stills ("Untitled #122" in particular). “Any woman was a role model, but not in a positive way,” Sherman said. “It frustrated me in terms of what was expected of me as a young girl turning into a woman.” Furthering her interest in film as a medium, Sherman turned to horror and film noir to create unsettling, but undeniably artistic, photographs of the Final Girl or femme fatale as a victim of the darkness. Incorporating Italian neorealism from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, as well as taking inspiration from cult classics such as Halloween and Night Of The Living Dead, she used the contrast of black and white – light and dark – to create fear in the viewer. As Sherman’s favourite genre, she argued that horror “makes you feel secure about your life”.
Imitation is what makes Sherman’s work so influential: she is able to create portraits of herself but still throw off the binary relationship between author and subject, as well as being able to de-centre the Self from her photographs. She has always said that the shots taken are not of her, but are a replication of varying subjectivities and archetypes, posing important questions about identity, representation and the role of imagery in contemporary culture. And, this seems to be more relevant now than ever with the creation of social media and how we carefully manufacture a mediated version of ourselves online. Sherman should be championed as the ultimate Selfie queen. Her exhibition Imitation of Life, now being shown in Los Angeles and Melbourne, celebrates the photographer’s expansive use of imitation as an art form and the ways it displaces identification with its subject.
Sherman’s career, in its entirety, could arguably be read as one huge juxtaposition. Challenging the capitalistic drive of the art world yet being one of the most successful and highly paid photographers of a generation; questioning the glamourous world of fashion yet partnering with brands such as Louis Vuitton; creating self-portraits that should be viewed as anything but that; being a feminist icon without ever truly engaging with the movement; finding comfort in life by examining death. Far from being like a book that can be studied from cover-to-cover, it seems Sherman herself is as unsure about what it is she’s trying to say through her art as critics who have spent years asking the same question are.
Censorship in the USA in 1990 became a huge issue for artists who pushed the boundaries of social acceptance. The National Endowment for The Arts pulled its funding for controversial art projects in the country, making it harder for creatives to express themselves outside the rigid barriers that were set. Sherman’s answer to this was to create outrageous and perverse portraits of pornography and genitalia using plastic. As a way of mocking the conservatism of America at the time, and the art world more specifically, she refused to inhibit her work by instruction of governing institutions. Through her use of broken and disfigured mannequins and dolls, and explicitly haunting imagery, Sherman put two fingers up to the system.
Influenced by postmodernism and conceptual art, Sherman took influence from other artists who were not only challenging the status quo, but were also challenging what was actually perceived as “art”. Lynda Benglis, an American sculptor and visual artist, is emblematic of the postmodern movement’s self-referential treatment of photography as a medium. Famed for her advert in Artforum which featured her completely naked except for a dildo and a pair of sunglasses, as a way of satirising pin-up girls and the “male ethos”, Benglis would go on to motivate Sherman’s 1981 Centerfold series in the same publication. Using the centrefold of the magazine to convey a victim-like Sherman in a range of styles, costumes and poses, the collection is widely thought of as one of her most feminist narratives. She said of the series: “The horizontal pictures I did were meant to resemble in format a centrefold, but in content a man who was opening up the magazine and feel like the violator that they would be. I’m trying to make someone feel bad for having certain expectations.”
The male gaze – a concept theorised by Laura Mulvey in 1975 – has become instrumental in examining film and image in terms of gender, sexual identity and human relations. Sherman’s utilisation of the male gaze is complex: in one sense she diverts her passivity by being both the looker and the looked at, but in another way she consistently re-establishes the gaze by playing the victim or sexualised object. Take "Untitled Film Still #6", taken in 1977, the artist exposes herself in her underwear, holding a mirror in one hand as she dons her usual emotionless expression. While the image is clearly sexualised, Sherman also demonstrates how femininity is a disguise, a performance, and then so too becomes the commander of the gaze.
The Big Apple, New York City, is the backdrop in which all examinations of Sherman’s work should be centred around. After studying the visual arts at Buffalo State College, she moved back east in the 70s to pursue her interests in photography. Admittedly, Sherman found New York isolating, dangerous, yet inspirational, and became almost reclusive in her notorious studio. Feeling victimised outside the comfort of her walls, she observed the motions and performances of everyday life at a time when women’s civil liberties were limited. New York, in and of itself, serves as a central character in Sherman’s collections. She married French photographer and filmmaker Michel Auder in 1984, but they divorced 15 years later. Sherman now lives in Soho where she continues to make conceptual art.
Sherman’s 1997 feature film directorial debut came in the form of Office Killer, a film noir pastiche and comedy-horror which follows the story of Dorine (Carol Kane),a magazine editor with a thirst for blood who goes on a murdering rampage. Although badly received by critics for its poorly-executed plotline and seemingly out-dated cinematography, it can be widely read as classic Sherman. Incorporating her favourite genres and themes – horror, death and the female – she created a humorous ode to slasher films of the 80s, with no apologies for its unconvincing gore and schlocky aesthetic.
Sherman’s Sex Pictures at the beginning of the 90s took a turn towards the pornographic in what can be described as an almost medical or anatomical examination of sexuality. Living through the AIDS crisis in the previous decade, particularly in New York City, she felt it was important to scrutinise the body as a way of understanding society. Filling her studio with life-sized dolls and prosthetics, Sherman dissected, and mutilated, humanity itself by posing questions about sex, gender and disease through plastic. One image that usually stands out in the minds of Sherman enthusiasts is Untitled #263, which saw a fusion of male and female genitalia in a deeply de-eroticised form. The hermaphroditic portrayal of sexuality as fluid or seamless is typical Sherman, as well as the recognition that it is not reality. Untitled #258, which features a mannequin from behind with a gaping hole where her anus should be, should be examined under the conservative lens of the US at the time.
“I got nervous when my work starting to become popular, so I started making things that would challenge someone to hang it over their sofa,” Sherman said of her deviation from portraiture and towards a pictorial theatre of the perverse. In an almost deliberate act of regression, she started to venture into unmarketable territory in what many have theorised as a protest against the traditionalist values of the 80s. With Regan and Thatcher at the helm of foreign politics, there was a sense that society yearned for the past and a stunted nostalgia reared its head. Artists returned to painting and an expressionist onslaught, largely by male painters, withdrew support for work such as Sherman’s. Pictures of vomit, condoms, dildos, pubic hair and women with their heads and genitalia chopped off challenged the nature of capitalism in the art world. However, she was named the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship in 1995 regardless.
In 1980, Sherman moved from black and white to colour in her series entitled Rear Screen Projections. In the collection, she would pose in front of projections of various cityscapes and backgrounds, creating a surreal and abstract aesthetic. In Untitled #66, the artist poses in the middle of a highway holding her bike, giving the impression that she could be killed at any moment. Although this series is lesser known, it provides insight into the introspection of Sherman and work.
“I got nervous when my work was starting to become popular, so I started making things that would challenge someone to hang it over their sofa” – Cindy Sherman
Sex Pictures, shot in 1992, is Sherman’s most controversial project and the first in which she did not appear in the images. Using a mix of prosthetics, dolls and mannequins, she dissected the body and problematised the relationship between physicality and sexuality. One figure posed with a tampon in its vagina, another with sausages excreted from the vulva, and others were arranged in ways that art critic Jerry Saltz dubbed “anti-porn porn, the unsexiest sex pictures ever made.” Some saw the series as a progressive exploration of anatomy and cultural conceptions of sex and the body, while others viewed them as a “tasteless” departure from her previous work.
Sherman’s capacity to bridge the gap between low culture and high culture is demonstrated by her use of pop culture imagery and television. A dream for students of cultural and gender studies, the artist drew inspiration from whatever was available to her as she grappled with becoming a woman through the revolution of the 50s and 60s. Visiting thrifts stores, dressing up as pin-up girls seen on poorly made adverts, Sherman’s style evolved as one that is all-encompassing at the same time as being utterly inaccessible. The simple concept of dressing up and taking pictures that resemble something she has seen on the small screen are far more puzzling in practice.
Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), which catapulted Sherman into global notoriety, consists of 69 black and white photographs where she poses in a number of different settings, characters, and costumes. Leaving the images untitled, the artist was able to preserve the ambiguity of the scenes that she created. Sherman hoped to tell a moving narrative through the use of stills, re-creating iconic films and imagery as a way of re-imagining mainstream forms of storytelling. Many in the series were fiercely critical of the way women were portrayed in the media, while others were simply shot to evoke an ambivalent reaction from the spectator. Taken in a mixture of locations, ranging from her studio, Long Island, Arizona and New York, the series continued until Sherman had “ran out of clichés”. The Museum of Modern Art bought Untitled Film Stills in 1995 for $1 million.
The voyeuristic quality of Sherman’s photographs is as unsettling as it is captivating. Capturing the sadistic pleasure of the viewer – in the way that we intrude into uncomfortable depictions of violence as sexual pleasure – is a testament to the artist’s staging, camera placement, lighting, and so forth. Presented to us in an arguably peep show fashion, we are no longer invisible voyeurs but are active participants in critical viewing. Critic Therese Lichtenstein writes: “By self-consciously watching ourselves watching, by catching ourselves in the act, we interrupt the gazes of voyeurism, fetishism, and even narcissism.” This meta-narrative is a heavily embedded throughout Sherman’s photographs: a postmodern self-awareness that blurs the boundaries between looking and being looked at is ever-present.
“Sherman’s career, in its entirety, could arguably be read as one huge juxtaposition. Challenging the capitalistic drive of the art world yet being one of the most successful and highly paid photographers of a generation; creating self-portraits that should be viewed as anything but that”
It seems like an obvious one, but W is definitely for women. Although Sherman’s first series Bus Riders saw her assume the roles of both male and female, almost every photograph after this would focus on the white woman. While some of her critics have assimilated this with the “white-washing” of second-wave feminism, it seems Sherman’s images have somewhat unintentionally become a core narrative for both the subordination and emancipation of 20th-century women.
The size of Sherman’s portraits became larger as she became more successful, which is perhaps a fairly straightforward correlation. Her first breakout collection, Untitled Film Stills were all 8 ½ by 12 inches, displayed in simple black frames. Centrefolds a year later made a jump to 24 by 48 inches, and the pattern continued. Now, Sherman’s exhibitions feature wall-length pictures of the artist, and many of her original works have been enlarged to fit the demand for her work.
Although her work is marked by alienation and isolation, particularly as much of it was shot alone in her studio, Sherman insists that she has a fear of being alone. Growing up as the youngest of five in the suburbs, with one brother tragically committing suicide at the age of 27, she admitted to finding comfort in relationships when she moved away from home. Sherman was married to Michel Auder for 17 years, who was addicted to heroin for much of the time. She entered into another ill-fated romance with filmmaker Paul H-O, which came to an abrupt end when he made a documentary, Guest of Cindy Sherman, about being the “insignificant other” to Sherman’s fame and success.
One of Sherman’s greatest abilities is to voice the mood and spirit of a particular generation. Whether it be the disturbing broken sex dolls, or funny clown series, or the large photographic murals that popped up at the 2011 Venice Biennale, she has always mimicked, and often anticipated, the cultural zeitgeist. As with feminism, Sherman almost accidentally stumbled into a more nuanced dialogue about female representation than many vehement second-wavers managed to. Far from an active trendsetter, she shot photographs through no-one’s lens but her own, but always embodied the soul and anguish of the time.
For the full Guest of Cindy Sherman documentary, click here
Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life is published by Prestel. Sherman’s exhibition at Los Angeles’ The Broad is on until 2 October 2016