Photography Masters - Cindy Sherman
Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - Cindy Sherman

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Cindy Sherman, an American photographer whose self-portraits offer critiques of gender and identity, was born in 1954 in New Jersey, US. She is known for her images—particularly her elaborately ‘disguised’ self-portraits—that comment on social role-playing and sexual stereotypes. During the early 1980s, a loose circle of American artists who came to artistic maturity and critical recognition, came to be labelled as the ‘Pictures Generation,’ of which Sherman was a key figure.

What catapulted Sherman to fame when she was between 23-26 years old, was the use of her own body in roles or personas in her work, with her seminal series, Untitled Film Stills, a series of 69 photographs—which is still one of her best-known works. These images, all in black and white, evoke key moments in Hollywood cinema. Though the ‘films’ from which these photographs are non-existent, they do evoke moods played out endlessly in mainstream cinema, thus causing the viewer to imagine that he or she has seen the film before. These photographs feature the artist herself as a model in various costumes and poses, and her portrayals of female stereotypes found in film, television, and advertising.

It seems that the inner calling behind Sherman's extensive series of self-portraiture in various guises was to expose the well-entrenched ecosystem that lay behind the countless images circulating in an incessantly public, ‘plugged in’ culture. What is central to her work is the sexual desire and domination and the fashioning of self-identity as mass deception, in the era of intense consumerism.

In her late 20s, Sherman came up with a series of double-width images intended to mimic the typically seductive poses of models placed at the center of adult magazines. Called the Centerfolds, she used the format to depict women who had endured physical abuse.

Untitled#96 – Sherman dressed up as a teenage girl in this photograph lying on the floor, clutching a page torn from a newspaper. The girl does not meet the viewer’s gaze but instead looks off into the middle distance, as if distracted or daydreaming of something. However, her schoolgirl naivety is contrasted by her freshly painted blood red nails, heavily highlighted cheeks and bright red lipstick - all signs of growing sexuality.
Untitled#96 – Sherman dressed up as a teenage girl in this photograph lying on the floor, clutching a page torn from a newspaper. The girl does not meet the viewer’s gaze but instead looks off into the middle distance, as if distracted or daydreaming of something. However, her schoolgirl naivety is contrasted by her freshly painted blood red nails, heavily highlighted cheeks and bright red lipstick - all signs of growing sexuality.

While in her 30s, Sherman started using color film and large prints, and focused mainly on lighting and facial expression.

Sherman’s series, Sex Pictures, which she brought out when she was 38, takes the dialogue about the male gaze even further; instead of using herself as a model, Sherman poses prosthetics and the body parts of mannequins.

She returned to ironic commentary in the 1990s, directing the dark comedy Office Killer when she was 43. Three years later, in 2000, she released a series of photographs of women with exaggerated attributes—a representation of social role-playing and sexual stereotypes.

For over three decades, Sherman has been her own photographer, model, makeup artist, hairdresser, stylist, and wardrobe mistress creating works which are amusing and disturbing, as well as distasteful and affecting. Sherman has deftly altered her physique and surroundings to create a myriad of intriguing tableaus and characters, from screen siren to clown to aging socialite.

Untitled, 2006. Sherman's works often waver on the edge of the absurd and grotesque, while being filled with both humor and tragedy. In this work, she investigates the clown as a subject. She believed that clowns have an underlying sense of sadness while they are trying to cheer people up. Clowns are sad, but they are also psychotically and hysterically happy.
Untitled, 2006. Sherman's works often waver on the edge of the absurd and grotesque, while being filled with both humor and tragedy. In this work, she investigates the clown as a subject. She believed that clowns have an underlying sense of sadness while they are trying to cheer people up. Clowns are sad, but they are also psychotically and hysterically happy.

When she was 62, Sherman opened a public profile on Instagram. Entirely different from the traditional Instagram selfie, Sherman introduced her signature style of costuming herself, and distorting the results to transform her appearance. Thus the photographs that Sherman posts of herself uses modern technology to reshape the posed images, warping them into social commentaries. Hence they are distorted using several face-tuning apps; in one series of three images, the artist is seen posing in a red silk kimono but the backgrounds are switched in each photograph. Her lips are larger than life, painted a brilliant pink in one shot; in another, the artist's trademark blonde hairdo has been swapped for a tightly-curled brown wig.

Despite her stance against commodification of women, she was asked to create fashion advertisements that appeared in Interview magazine. A series of her portraits appeared in Harper's Bazaar at the age of 39; and later when she was 62 which indirectly highlighted the absurdity of street-style fashion photography.

Surprisingly in January 2019, pop star Justin Timberlake appeared in an Instagram video wearing a black sweatshirt adorned with a replica of a Cindy Sherman print.

Notwithstanding her strong messaging, Sherman took in a record $3.89 million for a print of Untitled#96 in 2011; her works have since gone on to sell for millions of dollars. It seems that these over-the-top costumes and parodies of contemporary culture have both struck a chord and allowed those in the industry to laugh at themselves and the absurdity of how women are represented.

Untitled (Madonna). In this, Sherman plays the role of the Madonna. Although she is shrouded in a white veil like a classically rendered religious figure, Sherman’s elongated eye lashes, accentuated lips and dual horn-like curls peeking out from beneath her veil play with the traditional historic depiction. Her stylized image could be a reference to the “new woman” of the 1920’s whose liberated views on sexuality are in direct opposition to the virginal, biblical Madonna.
Untitled (Madonna). In this, Sherman plays the role of the Madonna. Although she is shrouded in a white veil like a classically rendered religious figure, Sherman’s elongated eye lashes, accentuated lips and dual horn-like curls peeking out from beneath her veil play with the traditional historic depiction. Her stylized image could be a reference to the “new woman” of the 1920’s whose liberated views on sexuality are in direct opposition to the virginal, biblical Madonna.

It is no surprise that Sherman has coveted awards and honours to her credit. She was the recipient of Japan's ‘Praemium Imperiale Prize’ 2016 in the painting category, with a prize money of $145,000; besides bagging the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award; and being bestowed with a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. In 2019, another honour came her way: the 2019 Max Beckmann Prize which recognizes outstanding performances in the fields of painting, graphic art, sculpture and architecture.

Sherman is an honorary member of the Royal Academy, and has been represented in numerous biennials across the world. Her work has been the subject of many museum exhibitions, including those at The Museum of Modern Art in 2019, and at the National Portrait Gallery, in London in 2019.

Presently Cindy Sherman lives in New York, reportedly, with her parrot. While critics and fans continue to regard Sherman as an important voice with her biting critique through the poignant and intimate medium of portraiture, she makes light of her phenomenal contributions: ‘Everyone thinks these are self-portraits but they aren’t meant to be. I just use myself as a model because I know I can push myself to extremes, make each shot as ugly or goofy or silly as possible.’

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Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.

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