Cindy Sherman

Focus on the Photographer
A woman stands at the sink wearing an apron, leaning on the counter and looking over her shoulder.

Untitled Film Still #3 (1977. Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York) © Cindy Sherman

Can Art Influence Perception?

What I love about Cindy Sherman is that she infuses into her photography the postmodern themes, concepts and questions often applied to fiction. By doing so, she effectively challenges the assumption that photography is a true representation of the real, making us examine:

  • the power structure of the subject/object relationship
  • veracity in representation and history
  • the failure of language and it’s limitation on thought
  • capitalism as an inextricable driving force in postmodern art
A woman stands at the sink wearing an apron, leaning on the counter and looking over her shoulder.

Untitled #366 de la série Bus Riders, 1976-2000 Courtesy l'artiste et Metro Pictures, New York © Cindy Sherman

MoMa summarizes Sherman’s 1st collection, Untitled Film Stills:

The sixty-nine solitary heroines map a particular constellation of fictional femininity that took hold in postwar America the period of Sherman’s youth, and the ground-zero of our contemporary mythology.

Sherman poses herself as if she were a film star and then snaps the shutter. As the photographer, she is the subject capturing what appears to be a realistic depiction of her object, creating a glimpse into the life of a starlet. At the same time, she is standing in as that object, an actress acting the part of an actress. The result is a representational copy of a starlet who has never existed, the perfect simulacra, calling attention to the problematic subject and object, and the assumption of real or historic photographic representation accentuated by her use of black and white photography.

A woman stands at the sink wearing an apron, leaning on the counter and looking over her shoulder.

Untitled #305 1994 Collection M. et Mme Howard L. Ganek © Cindy Sherman

The Protagonist

In reference to Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #3 (1977. Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York), MoMa.org says “the protagonist is shown preening in the kitchen.”

But who is the protagonist? The actress being portrayed? The artist herself? Or the idea of a woman preening in order to present herself a certain way? In essence, all 3 possibilities require acting. Thus, lines blur as to where one ends and the others begin.

Also, in Sherman’s kitchen setting, this woman seems out of place, even in her apron. She is too glamorous to be surrounded by typical household items and, against the barren walls, she becomes the only beauty aesthetic in the room. While the surrounding items do little to help define who she is, they do tell who she is not. Or perhaps, to read it another way, the items define her everyday life while being a celebrity is not her true self.

The one hard and fast truth is that it is impossible to know who this person really is.

Cindy Sherman sitting in a chair with a remote and cigarette

Untitled Film Still #16. (1978. Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York) © Cindy Sherman

Photographer & Subject

With this image, Untitled Film Still #16. (1978. Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York), the same questions are called into play. As a posed object, the camera control is in Sherman’s right hand, revealing more directly that she is also the subject. She looks away, denying that she is posing while obviously controlling all that is seen.

Point of view shifts up from the floor here, offering a voyeuristic view into the domestic life of this celebrity. We sit at her feet and look up in awe at her formally centered placement, her perfect posture with one foot purposefully arranged in front of the other.

The casual grip of her cigarette suggests that her stiff feminine posturing is a forced picture of casual relaxation. She holds this pose under the watchful eye of the formally posed man on the wall. Each are confined within the social definitions of gender during this particular era. The message is reminiscent of Cixous’ argument that language is structured around dichotomies that allow for no areas of overlap.

As the creation of this collection drew to a close, Sherman said she had run out of cliches to represent, reminding us also of author Jeanette Winterson’s reference, in her novel Written on the Body, to cliched language and it’s limitation of our thoughts.

A manequin-looking woman with real and artificial elements bares her breast as if to feed.

Untitled #225 (1990. Color photograph. Collection Philip and Beatrice Gersh, Beverly Hills.) © Cindy Sherman

Real vs. Representation

Sherman continually explores these themes in her later photography making a more blatant attack on the assumed “realism” in representation.

In Untitled #225 (1990. Color photograph. Collection Philip and Beatrice Gersh, Beverly Hills.) this disturbing model appears to be a well dress aristocrat from another century wearing a great deal of make-up and a wig. It becomes difficult to identify where the artificial parts of this woman end and the real begin. The unreal appearance of the head and the more obvious artificial breast makes one question, is this even Sherman posing?

The figure is also a mother, offering her artificial breast to an unseen child as if to say motherhood is only one aspect of a whole woman, not her full identity. Wealth, jewels, a fine wig and clothing are not reliable identifiers either. These are nothing more than commodities. Does the woman in wearing them then become a commodity herself?

A manequin is suggestively bent over and naked with a face looking back toward the viewer.

Untitled #255 (1992) © Cindy Sherman

Artificial Artist/Subject

Moving away from reference to realism altogether, Sherman’s woman becomes fully artificial, as does she, each replaced by the same doll.

The pornographic and exposed positioning of Untitled #255 (1992) equates the “reality” of sex mags to that of posed plastic. The lack of reality is as exposed as the model itself and yet the demand for such “recreations” of sexual events inspires vigorous capitalist reproduction.

This replacement also calls into question the authenticity of the artist’s role in representation, drawing attention to the lack of realism that occurs when objects are selectively chosen for representation. The model looks away from the camera to demonstrate, once again, a denial of the artificial situation.

Flawed Realism Exemplified

Interestingly, using a doll as an unrealistic representation of a human being, although it seems to be a drastic difference of subject/object from the first pictured above, is no different in concept. Sherman brilliantly exposes photographic “realism” as equally flawed in all.

Of course, this is my take on things. What do you see?

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