Cindy Sherman is one of the world’s leading artists – for 30 years, she has starred in all her photographs – and yet the more we see of her, the less recognisable she is. She’s a Hitchcock heroine, a busty Monroe, an abuse victim, a terrified centrefold, a corpse, a Caravaggio, a Botticelli, a mutilated hermaphrodite sex doll, a man in a balaclava, a surgically-enhanced Hamptons type, a cowgirl, a desperate clown, and we’ve barely started.
Shots of movies that never existed
This lively description of Cindy Sherman comes from a Guardian interview in 2011. I first came across her work in the 1977 “Complete Untitled Film Stills”. These are a series of 69 black and white photographs described in the same article as “a brilliantly novel concept – grainy shots of movies that never existed.” The pictures were shot across a range of locations including her NY studio, New York, Long Island and Arizona. They now reside in MoMA, New York. Inspired by film, TV and pop culture imagery, full of irony and depicting clichéd characters, the series challenged cultural stereotypes of women. They created an enthralling and highly ambiguous, narrative at the same time. Her talent was evident not only as a photographer, but as a highly accomplished model, make-up artist, story-teller and stylist.
Too ambiguous to label
As a film fan and of film noir in particular there is much to like in the film stills: the concept, the noir and horror influences, Sherman’s ability to metamorphosise and the ambiguity of her images. Like David Lynch, who channels his subconscious to produce his films, Sherman appears to be an artist who works with the unconscious and interprets her work afterwards. As she said herself , “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.” To take pictures that clearly tell a story, but not one the viewer can quite make out, is something I aspire to to, but only rarely achieve. Cindy Sherman has achieved this throughout her career – through which she has had plenty of labels applied to her work. It has been called feminist, postmodernist and post-structuralist, but her work is that of a performance artists and it is often hard to categorise.
Self portraits that are anything but
Like another of my favourite photographers Brassaï, Cindy Sherman started out as a painter, working in the super-realist style. She soon moved to photography and began using a combination of costume make-up, pose, expression and location to alter her appearance. In doing so she created images of herself that were anything but self portraits. She has described herself as anonymous in her work, and has commented that she never sees herself in her own pictures. Her performance art approach and her skilled mimicry make this a highly credible claim “I’ll see a photograph of a character and try to copy them on to my face” she once said. This is an idea that I admire, but that I also find somewhat unsettling.
Challenging to hang over the sofa
In 1980 Sherman moved from black and white to colour and from there, nervous about her success, she deliberately produced less marketable work. Admirably she described it as “making things that would challenge someone to hang it over their sofa.” She started to use mannequins as well as prosthetics in much darker and more grotesque work. I will admit to liking this far less than the Untitled Film Stills, but it needs to be considered as part of the extraordinary re-invention of both herself and her work over the years.
Central in an era of consumerism and image proliferation
The importance of Cindy Sherman’s work is well described in an article on The Art Story: