I first encountered Cindy Sherman’s work in 2017 and became fascinated by her ability to transform herself so well that it was difficult to believe she was the model. That and the fact that she never allowed anyone into her studio while taking the photographs (apart from her parrot). Some of the positions she adopted were so complicated that it is hard to believe she took the photograph herself. She did explain her reasons, as follows:
“I did once try using family members or friends, and once paid an assistant. But even when I was paying somebody, I still wanted to rush through and get them out of the studio. I felt like I was imposing on them. Also I got the feeling that they were having fun, to a certain extent, thinking this was like Halloween, or playing dress-up. The levels I try to get to are not about the having-fun part.”
[Susan Bright, 2005, Art Photography Now, p25]
Cindy Sherman attended Buffalo College, which is where she discovered the art of “selfie”. One of her early works is this collage on the effects of makeup. Starting with a picture of a plain teenager, to the final picture which shows what could be the face of a glamourous filmstar. She developed her own style and her ability to transform herself into someone else.
Some have likened her to an actress as much as a photographer, although she doesn’t see herself in that way. She says she tries to immerse herself into her art, and she uses the camera as an artist uses a brush to produce their work. The key aspect for me is that each image has a story attached to it, and it is not always easy to identify the story. Many of her images are untitled as she felt she could not assign a title to each one, in particular her Untitled Film Stills, created between 1977 and 1980.
I went to see her work at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and was not disappointed. The exhibition was laid out in chronological order, with each collection/genre displayed together. In the first area there were a number of her images while she was still a student, including the image shown above, and many of them had not been displayed before.
I was particularly drawn to the series of Untitled Film Stills. Sherman said in an interview that she had grown up watching television and films, and wanted to recreate a series of images emulating the characters she had been watching. She created her own characters based on these films and each image told a story. For me the fascination is that each image has ambiguity embedded into it, there is no indication from Sherman what that story might be. For example the photograph below shows a girl reading a letter. Is it good news, bad news? Who is she looking at? Maybe she is looking around to make sure no one is watching.
I was also drawn to her series portraying “rich American women”. This series, taken in 2008, shows the type of portraits which would have been commissioned by the rich. However, Sherman’s take on this is to create caricatures of those portraits. In the portrait shown below is of a women in an elegant and glitzy gown, lots of makeup and jewellery, and taken against a rather grand background. Is it her property, or has she been located there for the portrait? The irony in this picture is that she is wearing cheap plastic sandals and thick tights. Not the sort of elegant footwear expected of such a person.
The exhibition as a whole gave a great insight into Cindy Sherman’s work and life. The section on prosthetic limbs and genitalia were a move a way from some of her work, but I felt it was there to shock.
Finally, the mock up of her studio with all the storage drawers full of prosthetics showed how much she very skillfully uses prosthetics in her photography.