Sherman's Untitled Film Still #21
7.5 x 9.5 inches or 19.1 x 24.1 cm
Every day we put faith in the journalistic integrity of photography. Whether flipping through a magazine, skimming the newspaper, or browsing blogs on the web, we tend to trust that the images presented accurately document the truths of the world around us. It may seem counter-intuitive, therefore, that the medium may successfully comment on social issues if the mirror reflects only lies.
Contemporary American artist and filmmaker Cindy Sherman made her name by performing this very feat. After graduating from the State University College at Buffalo in the mid-1970s, Sherman began producing her iconic series of black-and-white photographs entitled “Film Stills.” As their titles suggest, the scenes mimic freeze-frames of film noir and 1950s Hollywood B-movies, often with only a single female protagonist in the shot. Though varying wildly in appearance, each character was modeled by the artist herself.
Viewed individually, we’re tempted to assign each photograph a mini narrative. In one work, a young woman – perhaps a college student – is shown reaching for her reading selection high on a library bookshelf, a distracted (and possibly apprehensive) glance stolen over her shoulder. In the second, a dancer perched on a windowsill seems lost in pensive daydream. The main figure of the third appears sloppy, drunk, and belligerent. Taken as snippets of broader plotlines, we might wish to construe possible histories and assume genres.
On the surface, we’re merely observing the common roles, personalities, and moods of womanhood. Yet this conclusion crumbles with the revelation that – whether disguised as haughty housewife, runaway hitchhiker, society maven or apparent murder victim – Cindy Sherman is all, and none, of them. Is Sherman a portraitist of herself, of specific stereotypes, or of all women? These questions flip the impact of the photographs on its head; suddenly we, the viewers, are the butt of the joke, and our preconceptions about feminine identity comprise the punch line.
Carefully composing each scene in the manner of a stage set, Sherman manipulates our perceptions while parodying the mass-media stereotypes found in filmmaking and advertising. Simultaneously, she critiques photography’s reputation as an inherently honest, candid source of information. Sherman’s work largely can be organized into thematic series, such as those that portray waiting bus riders or riff on historical portraiture and fashion photography, to name a few. As her career progressed, she began to toy more freely with elements of humor and the grotesque, employing doll and dummy parts, prosthetics, clown makeup, and masks for a more unsettling effect.
Feminism and Transformation
Sherman made her artistic debut in the 1970s, a time when women were actively challenging misogynist attitudes in American society. In a push to achieve greater social equality, feminist artists experimented with various strategies to challenge the long history of females used as mere objects of male-produced artwork, as submissive subjects of the male viewer’s gaze. Some feminists attempted to invert this gaze, which means that they recast male subjects as the sexual object of the female viewer. Others tried subversion: the practice of redirecting the gaze, or reclaiming core imagery (imagery of the female body) as a source of feminist power and pride. Lastly, some women – Cindy Sherman among them – attempted deconstruction, or unraveling what women are about, what they represent, and how images of them are made and consumed. Some of the most successful feminist art came out of this third strategy.
Ultimately, the most striking thing about Sherman is her accessibility. Ambiguous and mystifying, alluring in their beauty as well as their horror, her works appeal to some of the hardest groups to win over: those who are new to art and art history, and those who might otherwise be wary of exploring a subject that was in its time so controversial. Though Sherman has never considered herself a feminist, she can be linked undeniably to the post-war reevaluation of “woman,” her imagery, and her role in American culture and society.
A Personal Note
On a personal note, Sherman was the first artist associated with the feminist era that I found myself drawn to. Her chameleon-like performances evoked in me puzzling yet compelling questions about the nature of looking, the power of transformation, and how we present and digest information. For a long time a very mysterious art world figure – always disguised, never unmasked – Sherman now conducts behind-the-scenes studio interviews through platforms like Art21, allowing art students of today an insider’s peek into her working method, her personality, her creative goals, and the inspiration that drives her to lose herself in her characters.
Text by Meg Floryan
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