Sherman was born in America in 1954, so she is slightly older than I am. Her early experiences may well have been similar, although transmuted via an American, rather than British, perspective, you played on the street, you dressed up and pretended to be people, if you were a girl there were very tight gender specific jobs and roles. It took guts and extreme talent to move beyond them. Sherman was the youngest of five children, and no one else in her family was interested in art. She went to art college with very little formal knowledge about art and expecting to have to become a teacher. She initially started her career as a painter, but rapidly abandoned this and took up photography, initially concentrating exclusively on pictures of herself dressed up as various roles. However, Sherman does not describe these works as self-portraiture, but as using herself as ‘a vehicle for a commentary on a variety of issues in the modern world’ (Sherman, 2019). She portrays archetypes, a series of fabricated, fictional characters that are familiar to us because of our familiarity with TV and film people, mediated via the popular press (and more latterly social media). All of these early images are called Untitled, with a series name and often a number – further distancing them from any assumption that they are showing a specific person. A portrait almost always has the name of a person, or, at minimum, a description that personalises them. In later images Sherman used dolls and prosthetic body parts posed in highly charged sexual positions and clearly designed to shock the viewer. Recently she has returned to using herself as the subject, both in a further series of created characters and as a series of distorted images that are freely available to view on her Instagram site.
In a recent article Sherman, when talking about her own work and about selfies (and why her images are the reverses of selfies) says ‘It feels magical, I don’t know what it is I’m looking for until I put the makeup on, and then somehow it’s revealed. I’m disappearing in the world, rather than trying to reveal anything. It’s about obliterating, erasing myself and becoming something else’ (Blasberg, 2019).
Sherman is both a prolific artist and an influential one. Almost every article discussing post-modernism in photography references her. Grunberg describes her work as ‘Perfectly poststructuralist portraits, for they admit to the ultimate unknowableness of the “I”. They challenge the essential assumption of a discrete, identifiable, recognizable author (Grunberg, 2010, p.9). Her work is included in the list of 7 most expensive prints sold (Untitled 96) which is one of the Centrefold series that was originally commissioned for Artforum but never run as the then editor was concerned that they might be misunderstood. I wonder if the editor had really considered any of Sherman’s images as this comment could be applied to most (if not all) of them.
There is a fascinating (and long) discussion on the OCA website about Sherman, discussing her self-portraits – are they narcissistic or not? her background growing up in white, TV obsessed America – and the impact that had on her initial reactions to gender and make-believe that goes on to discus why we like, or don’t like her images and wether an initial ‘gut reaction’ has any validity as a starting point for analysis of an image (The Open College of the Arts, 2011).
I have seen a small number of Sherman’s prints in galleries
- An early Madonna in the Sometimes I Disappear exhibition in Edinburgh – discussed in Sometimes I Disappear
- Cindy Sherman – Early Works at the Stills Gallery, Edinburgh. This showed some of her very earliest self-portraits – Untitled (Murder Mystery People) together with some images form the untitled Film Stills collection and a very early film Dolls Clothes. Prior to this exhibition most of the images I Had seen were in books. I was surprised at how small the images were. This initially disappointed me, however it had the effect that I had to go in close to look at them in detail, and this drew me into the stories, possibly more so than a large image would have.
I find myself bemused by some of her work, revolted by other pieces (as I am fairly sure she meant people to be) and increasingly interested in it the more I examine it. Very little of it is ‘easy’. Some may be attractive to look at, but the closer you look at it the less obvious it becomes. Three years ago, I would have confidently stated that I did not like her work. My view is now different.
Blasberg, D. (2019). Why Cindy Sherman Thinks Selfies Are a Cry for Help. [online] WSJ. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-cindy-sherman-thinks-selfies-are-a-cry-for-help-11572352378.
Grundberg, A. (2010). Crisis of the Real: writings on photography. New York: Aperture Foundation, p.9.
Instagram.com. (2018). cindy sherman. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/cindysherman/ [Accessed 10 Apr. 2019].
Sherman, C. (2019). Biography – Cindy Sherman – Photographer, Model, Director, Actor, Avant-Garde Images, Doll Parts and Prosthetics, Movies. [online] Cindysherman.com. Available at: http://www.cindysherman.com/biography.shtml.
Stills. (2019). Cindy Sherman: Early Works, 1975—80 – Stills. [online] Available at: https://stills.org/exhibitions/cindy-sherman/ [Accessed 3 Feb. 2020].
The Open College of the Arts. (2011). Cindy Sherman: Master of Disguise | The Open College of the Arts. [online] Available at: https://www.oca.ac.uk/weareoca/fine-art/cindy-sherman-master-of-disguise/? [Accessed 3 Feb. 2020].