Cindy Sherman: Contemporary Photographer, Master of Disguise
“I wish I could treat every day as Halloween, and get dressed up and go out into the world as some eccentric character,” Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954) once stated. The artist had long been fascinated with makeup and costuming before she decided to integrate these interests into her career. Sherman is now known for her elaborately staged photographs, often centered upon herself in all manner of disguises. Through her work, she explores identity, especially female identity. She suggests that the way we perceive ourselves and others is mediated by the images that we encounter daily.
Sherman came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, decades shaped by the Vietnam War and numerous social movements, including feminism, which sought to free women from their confining roles and identity. These decades were also shaped by television, and Sherman was among the first generation of Americans raised on this new medium. She was drawn to television’s unique power and chose to pursue photography, in part, because she regarded it as the most apt form of expression in an image- and media-saturated society.
Using both film-based and digital cameras, Sherman stages photographs to resemble such popular formats as television and film stills, advertisements, magazine spreads, pornography, and school and society portraits. She established her career with her “Untitled Film Stills” series (1977–80), a suite of 70 black-and-white photographs in which she posed as various female stereotypes—including the working girl and the lonely housewife—perpetuated by mass entertainment. She continues to examine the construction of stereotypes in other series, focusing on gender and class identity; modes of portraiture in historical paintings; and depictions of eroticism, horror, and the grotesque in popular culture.
While some of her images may appear plausible, in most Sherman provides hints of their artifice. She often wears exaggerated wigs and prosthetic body parts or creates settings that seem obviously patched together. In this way, she parodies her source images and the societal attitudes that they reflect and perpetuate. She also alerts viewers that photographs cannot necessarily be trusted. Like other art forms, photographs are shaped by the person who makes them and can mislead, manipulate, and express a particular point of view.
Historical Paintings through a Contemporary Lens: Cindy Sherman’s Untitled, Number 228
Cindy Sherman was living in Rome when she began her series of “History Portraits” (1988–90), a suite of intentionally peculiar images through which she investigates the representation of individuals in Old Master and other historical varieties of portrait paintings. Though she had access to many iconic works of art in Italy, she chose not to see them in person. As she explained: “I was living in Rome but never went to the churches and museums there. I worked out of books, with reproductions. It’s an aspect of photography I appreciate, conceptually: the idea that images can be reproduced and seen anytime, anywhere, by anyone.”
Sherman served as model, set-dresser, and photographer for her “History Portraits.” Drawing from a range of art-historical styles and periods, including the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical, and alluding to canonical paintings, she used costuming and settings to transform herself into the historical-looking male and female figures at the center of each photograph. Full of obvious prostheses, bad wigs, and theatrical makeup, the images are made to appear artificial. By revealing her disguise, she demonstrates that her pictures are constructs; through them, she draws attention to the staged and often mannered nature of historical portrait paintings, while also playfully mocking the discipline of art history.
Among these pictures is Untitled, Number 228 (1990), a full-length portrait of the artist as the biblical heroine Judith, who is said to have rescued the Israelites from the invading Assyrian general Holofernes by seducing and beheading him. Judith was a popular and frequently depicted subject, and Sherman based her own portrait on paintings by numerous Renaissance and Baroque artists. In keeping with the grand scale and forceful visual impact of these earlier paintings, Sherman’s photograph is nearly seven feet high by four feet wide and filled with richly patterned, color-saturated fabrics. Filtered through the lens of the camera, these fabrics seem sumptuous, but they are, in fact, cheap knockoffs from secondhand stores. As the artist described: “I would go to a Salvation Army and look for certain kinds of costume-y things. But so much of it was junky stuff.”
Sherman shows Judith standing against a backdrop of brocaded cloth, dressed in an iridescent, voluminous crimson robe and holding the masklike head of Holofernes in one hand, a blood-smeared knife in the other. Her feet, planted firmly on the dirt ground, are slightly spread and appear incongruously large and thick. With her head slightly cocked, she stares ahead with a placid face, her expression open to many different speculations about her mental and emotional state in the aftermath of the violent act—and in keeping with the ambiguity that the artist builds into all of her work.