Untitled #96 (1981)
Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator"—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Cindy Sherman.
“If I knew what the picture was going to be like, I wouldn't make it. It was almost like it was made already… the challenge is more about trying to make what you can't think of.” — Cindy Sherman
To call Cindy Sherman simply a photographer would be a horrendous understatement. It’s much more fitting to call her a " total performance artist," as she tries on personas for a living. Her modus operandi is creating characters for her elaborate portrait series while working—alone—as a photographer, model, director, and actor.
The New Jersey native studied painting at Buffalo State College in the mid-70s before abandoning the medium for photography because painting made her feel like she was recreating someone else’s work. Before the age of digital photography and Photoshop, Sherman’s process always started out with a prop before adding costume, wigs, makeup, and often times an array of prosthetics. Then she would set up a mirror to stage out the photograph before checking the lighting with a Polaroid and shooting and developing her own film.
She prefers to work alone because that’s the easiest way for her to get into character. Having never formally titled any of her work, or really given any context for her images, Sherman’s impersonations leave the audience with a mere hint of an idea, a glimpse into a story that is open to interpretation.
In her most famous series, The Complete Untitled Film Stills (1970-1980), she embodied 69 different female stereotypes, from bored housewife and mysterious nightwalker to actress on vacation and uptight socialite. Though she doesn’t call her work “feminist,” her Centerfold series (1981) draws attention to the objectification of women in movies, television, and magazines, creating narratives that by nature should be sexy, but came off sad or a bit unsightly.
In Fairy Tales (1985) and Disasters (1986-1989), Sherman started using prosthetics and mannequins for the first time, and in her Clown series (2003), she began experimenting with digital photography, allowing her to create more extravagant backgrounds and montages.
The fashion world eventually picked up on her distinctive, campy aesthetic and brands like Balenciaga, Comme des Garçons, Marc Jacobs, and M.A.C. Cosmetics started lending her their clothes for commissions and ad campaigns. In recent years, Sherman has begun adding all her makeup and facial transformations in post-production.
Regarding a commission for POP Magazine in 2010 (where the artist wore Chanel haute couture), Sherman said, “Sometimes I would cut out a section of my cheek and then stretch it so it made the bags under my eyes droop even more, or make the jowls on my cheeks seem even droopier. Or I would use something to either blog up or inflate my lips, or shrink them. I was just exploring every option.”
As we’ve seen, Sherman is an artist whose practice has been able to fluctuate with the digital age, from developing and printing her own 35mm film to shooting digitally and tweaking her sets and characters in Photoshop. She received the esteemed MacArthur Fellowship in 1995, and has participated in the Venice Biennial, five Whitney Biennials, and a multitude of solo and group exhibitions. Her photograph Untitled #6 (1981) is the second most expensive photograph ever sold.
Cindy Sherman opened yesterday at the MoMA, bringing together over 170 photographs that span the artist’s transformative career. The exhibition runs through June 11th in conjunction with a series of films and talks, but for those who can’t make it to New York, here’s a selection of our favorite slices of Sherman below.
Untitled no. 66 (1980) from The Complete Untitled Film Stills
Untitled no. 92 (1981) from Centerfolds
Untitled no. 425 (2004)
2006 ad campaign for Marc Jacobs; shot by Juergen Teller
The “off-kilter Hitchcock heroine” from Cindy Sherman for M.A.C. Cosmetics