The camera acts as a proxy for consciousness: observing, distilling, and recording fragments of time for futures to come. Awareness of its presence often creates a schism on the person being photographed — a heightened awareness and sense of self-regard that make prompt posturing and performance, a desire to take on a persona and act the part. We wish to be as we appear, rather than appear as we are, hoping that expression and body language will convey our aspirations or indifference those who may later gaze upon our visage.
Throughout her career, Cindy Sherman has used the portrait as a space for reinvention of the self, taking on new characters as an actor would take on roles, submerging herself inside a series of curious, quirky, and unsettling facades. For more than 40 years, Sherman has conducted a fascinating masquerade, using photography to ensnare and unravel the complex relationships between the camera and the self.
The stunning new book, Cindy Sherman (Rizzoli Electa), produced in conjunction with a recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, catalogues the artist’s work from the mid-1970s through the present day in a series of around 150 works that trace the evolution of her portraits over the years.
As a member of the Pictures Generation, which flourished between 1974-1984, Sherman embodies the ethos of the subversive Boomer. Growing up in Huntington, Long Island, during the 1950s and ‘60s, Sherman came of age as a member of the quintessential suburban middle class, surrounded by images of striving, leisure, and wealth constructed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
Using herself as the subject of her work, Sherman began playing characters across a spectrum of white female experience. She used costume, hair, and make up to make the transformation complete, then, once properly attired, cast herself in the appropriate setting and adopted the proper expression and gesture to make us believe this was not an artist playing a role, but the portrait of an imaginary character residing somewhere in Sherman’s psyche.
Her series Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) was an instant hit, as Sherman channeled the lives of B-movie and film noir actresses on and off the set. It was a perfect throwback to an earlier time, simultaneously embodying the innocence and the mystery of countless young women who desperately wanted to make good in Hollywood when it was ruled by the casting couch.
Her 1981 series Centerfolds was even bigger still, accentuating the anonymity of the ubiquitous woman in film, television, and magazines. Lasciviously presented for our prying eyes, we quickly realize we don’t have the faintest clue about who, what, or why. Sherman’s women are simultaneously subject and object, underscoring the fact that agency is often a matter of perspective rather than fact.
Conventions, both contemporary and historic, have infused Sherman’s exploration of what representation is and does — who it serves and who benefits from woman as passive being to behold. As she continues to produce new series, some of which feature increasingly grotesque carnival of female figures, Sherman delves into the dark corners of the collective consciousness to unearth images of not just women, but of Western archetypes.
Many are women of power, of privilege and prestige, of access given, taken, or denied. Theirs is a singular framework that often asserts itself as the norm, forcing the belief that theirs is universal when it is anything but. As Sherman’s portraits reveal, they are of a highly specific niche, a realm of women who are often driven to act against their best interest.
By adopting these persons and infusing them with a pathos implied by the very nature of construction of identity, Sherman uses her agency to cast them in a space ripe for projection, like Rorschach tests. They exist as dreams and nightmares, as cautionary tales, of fictional histories that continue to exist in the West’s persistent preference for creating a pedagogy of myth rather than embracing truth.
All images: Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York