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Artists Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman

American Photographer

Movements: The Pictures Generation, Conceptual Art, Feminist Art, Postmodernism

Born: January 19, 1954 - Glen Ridge, New Jersey

"The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told."


Cindy Sherman is a contemporary master of socially critical photography. She is a key figure of the "Pictures Generation," a loose circle of American artists who came to artistic maturity and critical recognition during the early 1980s, a period notable for the rapid and widespread proliferation of mass media imagery. At first painting in a super-realist style in art school during the aftermath of American Feminism, Sherman turned to photography toward the end of the 1970s in order to explore a wide range of common female social roles, or personas. Sherman sought to call into question the seductive and often oppressive influence of mass-media over our individual and collective identities. Turning the camera on herself in a game of extended role playing of fantasy Hollywood, fashion, mass advertising, and "girl-next-door" roles and poses, Sherman ultimately called her audience's attention to the powerful machinery and make-up that lay behind the countless images circulating in an incessantly public, "plugged in" culture. Sexual desire and domination, the fashioning of self identity as mass deception, these are among the unsettling subjects lying behind Sherman's extensive series of self-portraiture in various guises. Sherman's work is central in the era of intense consumerism and image proliferation at the close of the 20th century.

Key Ideas

Recalling a long tradition of self-portraiture and theatrical role-playing in art, Sherman utilizes the camera and the various tools of the everyday cinema, such as makeup, costumes, and stage scenery, to recreate common illusions, or iconic "snapshots," that signify various concepts of public celebrity, self confidence, sexual adventure, entertainment, and other socially sanctioned, existential conditions. As though they constituted only a first premise, however, these images promptly begin to unravel in various ways that suggest how self identity is often an unstable compromise between social dictates and personal intention.
Sherman's photographic portraiture is both intensely grounded in the present while it extends long traditions in art that force the audience to reconsider common stereotypes and cultural assumptions, among the latter political satire, caricature, the graphic novel, pulp fiction, stand-up comedy (some of her characters are indeed uncomfortably "funny"), and other socially critical disciplines.
Sherman's many variations on the methods of self-portraiture share a single, notable feature: in the vast majority of her portraits she directly confronts the viewer's gaze, no less in the case of posed sex dolls, as though to suggest that an underlying penchant for deception is perhaps the only "value" that truly unites us.
Long assumed to be a medium that "mirrors" reality with precision, photography in Sherman's hands simultaneously constructs and critiques its apparent subject. In this sense, Sherman's unique form of portrait photography functions, in part, as a sign for the subjective nature of all human intelligence and the unstable nature of visual perception.

Most Important Art

Untitled Film Still #13 (1978)

Untitled Film Still #13 issues from Sherman's epic "Untitled Film Still" series (they did not actually derive from a larger movie) of the late 1970s, by which she first made a widespread reputation for herself as a witty commentator on the female role models of her youth, as well as those of an earlier generation. In this example, Sherman employs her own image as to suggest the central character in a 1960s "coming of age" romance, the young female intellectual on the verge of discovering her "true womanhood," or the prototypical virgin. Maturing in the 1970s in the midst of the American Womens' Movement, later known as the rise of Feminism, Sherman and her generation learned to see through mass media cliches and appropriate them in a satirical and ironic manner that made viewers self conscious about how artificial and highly constructed "female portraiture" could prove on close inspection.

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Untitled Film Still #21 (1978)

When the Museum of Modern Art announced in 1996 that it had just acquired Sherman's complete Untitled Film Still series, the curators knew they had laid claim to one of the most representative works of the early 1980s American movement of "appropriation," and "simulationism." Both terms refer to American artists' mimicking, in the first half of the 1980s, former art masterpieces or widely circulating images in the mass media, and critically reworking them to arouse a sense of unease in the viewer, indeed often suggesting that culture had become largely a game of theatrical posing and egoistic pretense. As Peter Galassi, then-curator of photography stated, "Sherman's singular talent and sensibility crystallized broadly held concerns in the culture as a whole, about the role of mass media in our lives, and about the ways in which we shape our personal identities. Here, Sherman takes on the role of the small-town girl just happening upon the Big City. She is, typically, at first suspicious of the metropolitan lights and shadows, only to be eventually seduced by its undeniable attractions.

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Untitled, "Sex Pictures" Series (1983)

Intended by the artist to shock the unsuspecting viewer, the Sex Pictures series features anatomical dolls arranged in compromising positions. Set clearly apart from actual pornography, the photograph cruelly comments on the greater dehumanization of women in life, as well as in art since time immemorial. Her space is claustrophobic, the body little more than a tool of raw desire, while the accoutrements of "beauty," such as hairbrush, skimpy panties, and the like, are strewn haphazardly around her. Once again, Sherman extracts certain conventions from their usual contexts, where they are often obscured by a host of attendant desires, and baldly reframes them as objects of intense, analytical attention. The effect is something that neither a medical investigation nor a political speech could convey with such vivid precision. Sherman suddenly "makes strange" the everyday, or the familiar, in ways that suggest we often trod through our lives while sleepwalking.

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Untitled #92, "Disasters and Fairy Tales" Series (1985)

Part of the later Disasters and Fairy Tales series, this photo shows Sherman as a damsel in distress. Crouched on the ground, she fearfully looks away from the camera. With wetted hair and a tensed position, she appears as if she just walked off the set of a horror film. Sparse lighting centers the composition and lends an ominous tone to the entire photograph. Sherman successfully evokes one of the oldest, quasi-racist "cheap tricks" in the movie business, the setting up of a vulnerable female or private school girl (note the prototypical uniform of starched white shirt and plaid skirt) being preyed upon by some terrible, evil monster. The role goes back to Faye Ray's "scream queen" in King Kong, Judy Garland's Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and countless other popular culture favorites in everyday comic book series, graphic novels, Broadway musicals, and others media of the mid 20th century. By freezing the image into a kind of sorry, secular icon, Sherman demonstrates how art may act as a visual "truth serum," a force of social change by way of its ability to stop a viewer in his/her tracks and suggest how certain assumptions are culturally inherited, not necessarily "natural."

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Untitled #209, "History Portrait" Series (1989)

In this three-quarter length, Italian Renaissance-style portrait, Sherman takes on the persona of the Mona Lisa. Donning a 15th-century Italianate dress, Sherman allies herself with one of art history's most famous, iconic paintings. No true replica, the photo is meant to call to mind the original, without literally copying it, the mental distance between the real and the imitation just barely apparent, yet somehow haunting. One might say that Sherman suggests that viewers rethink their familiarity with the original and question how its conventions of depiction continue to condition the way that even we, hundreds of years later, regard every representation of the "Female."

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Untitled (2004)

Sherman poses as a sad, or pathetic clown for some of her more recent works. Wearing elaborate make-up and fanciful costumes, she positions herself in front of digitally manipulated backgrounds, against which she explores the extremes of the clown character - its intense, yet superficial humor, its implied sadness, and its potential, subliminal rage. Set up much like a glamour shot, this photo focuses on the clown's face as the strange character stares stoically at the audience. The viewer is almost challenged, by the multiplied aspects of gross exaggeration in color, body type, expression, and circumstance, to make sense of the farcical image. The retarded stare of the portrait suddenly prods us to ask ourselves why we find such a figure humorous, and if the reasons behind our common laughter may in fact be traced to a cruel truth of human behavior normally left unquestioned in everyday reality.

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Untitled (2008)

In one of her most recent untitled series, Sherman explores the role of the suburban American housewife, or middle-American "everywoman," a character at once sympathetic, pathetic, and often too close to recognition for comfort. Juxtaposing female types trying desperately to look "cultured," yet failing miserably to cross the social divide between so-called "good breeding" and mere awkward "social climbing," Sherman's cast of characters once again give rise to feelings of unease and painful self-recognition. Never fully defining where she stands in relation to such images, Sherman leaves interpretation open to the individual viewer, something that ultimately says more about the person reading these images than the subjects portrayed in their glossy, mirror-like surfaces.

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Cindy Sherman was born January 19, 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey (virtually a suburb of New York City). Shortly after Cindy's birth, the family moved to Huntington, Long Island, where Cindy grew up as the youngest of five children. Although her parents shared a general disinterest in the arts-her father was an engineer and her mother a reading teacher-Sherman chose to study art in college, enrolling at the State University of New York, at Buffalo, in the early 1970s.

Cindy Sherman Biography Continues

Early Training

Sherman studied in Buffalo from 1972-76; she began as a painter, but she quickly found herself frustrated by what she considered certain limitations of the medium. The 1970s was an eclectic era for painters working in the aftermath of Minimalism, and feeling as though "there was nothing more to say [through painting]," Sherman shifted her attention to photography. Although initially failing a required photography class, she later elected to repeat the course, which ignited her passion for the subject. During her studies, Sherman met fellow artists Robert Longo and Charles Clough, with whom she co-founded Hallwalls Center for Contemporary Art in 1974 (it continues to function to the present day as a dynamic, multi-arts "hub"). Longo and Sherman dated until 1979. During her studies, Sherman was exposed to Conceptual art and other progressive art movements and media under the widely influential art instructor, Barbara Jo Revelle.

Upon graduation, Sherman moved to New York City to pursue her artistic career. In 1977, with her downtown residential and studio loft as her primary backdrop, Sherman began taking a series of photographs of herself, a project she would eventually refer to as the Untitled Film Stills. In this series, Sherman embodies the character of "Everywoman." Re-fashioning herself repeatedly into the guise of various female archetypes, Sherman played the girly pin-up, the film noir siren, the housewife, the prostitute, and the noble damsel in distress. The black-and-white series occupied her for about three years, so that by 1980 Sherman had virtually exhausted a myriad of seemingly timeless cliches referring to the "feminine."

Mature Period

With the debut of Untitled Film Stills, Sherman secured her position in the New York art world, leading to her first solo show at the non-profit exhibition space, The Kitchen. Shortly after, she was commissioned to create a centerfold image for Artforum magazine. Photos of a pink-robe-clad Sherman were ultimately deemed too racy by editor Ingrid Sischy and rejected. There is no knowing whether a subsequent series shot from 1985 to 1989, Disasters and Fairy Tales, was in some sense a response to that act of rejection, but, notably, it is a much darker endeavor than its prettified predecessor. Its gloomy palette and scenes strewn with vomit and mold challenged viewers to find beauty in the ugly and the unqualified grotesque.

Cindy Sherman Photo

Sherman's next series took on the hallowed subject of the art tableau. History Portraits again presented Sherman-as-model, but this time she assumed the air of European art history's most famous "leading ladies." Living in Europe at the time of its creation, Sherman drew inspiration from the West's great museums. That interlude gave way, in 1992, to Sherman's Sex Pictures, a project taken up in response to the censorship of the art of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. In the Sex Pictures, Sherman substituted her own figure for that of a doll. Intending to shock and scandalize the public, the images present close-ups of doll-on-doll sex scenes and prosthetic genitalia. Shortly after she began work on this series, Sherman received a MacArthur Fellowship.

In 1997, Sherman crossed over from still art photography to motion pictures, aided in part by her husband at that time, film director Michel Auder (the two divorced in 1999). She made her directorial debut with the thriller, Office Killer, starring Molly Ringwald and Jeanne Tripplehorn. A year later, Sherman played herself in John Waters's 1998 comedy, Pecker.

Over the last decade, Sherman dons clown's make-up in a series of still photography (2003) and, even more recently, she explored carefully staged female "suburban" identities in a solo show at Metro Pictures, NY (2008). In the latter series, Sherman photographed herself in various states of awkward make-up, superimposing stodgy, highly self-conscious portraits over contrived domestic and faux-monumental backdrops. In 2006, Sherman was honored by a retrospective of her work at the Jeu de Paume Museum, in Paris. Sherman continues to live and work in New York City, where she is dating David Byrne, of the band, "Talking Heads." She celebrated a solo exhibition at MoMA in early 2012.


The ultimate participant-critic of mass consumer culture, one perpetually partaking of its daily realities while nonetheless challenging its underlying assumptions, Cindy Sherman epitomizes the 1980s technique of "image-scavengering," and "appropriation" by artists seeking to question the so-called truth potential of mass imagery and its seductive hold on our individual and collective psyches. Sherman's depersonalized approach to portrait photography, in particular, has suggested a new, socially critical capacity for a medium that was once presumed a tool of documentary realism (or aesthetic pleasure). This "readymade" quality of the critically applied photograph, whereby a preexisting image or convention is appropriated intact by the artist and subtly turned into something more conceptually problematic, if not psychologically disturbing, has come to characterize much work of a new generation defying easy categorization.

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In addition, Sherman's work has been specifically cited as opening onto a new, "expanded field" of photography since the late 1990s, in much work characterized by a "fusion of narrative and stasis," such as in the photography of Jeff Wall, Anna Gaskell, Justine Kurland, Jenny Gage, and Sharon Lockhart. Such artists extend Sherman's anti-narrative approach to the medium and its subject matter, in work that frequently suggests unresolved stories and scenarios wrenched from contexts both common and disturbingly mysterious.


"I didn't want to make 'high' art, I had no interest in using paint, I wanted to find something that anyone could relate to without knowing about contemporary art. I wasn't thinking in terms of precious prints or archival quality; I didn't want the work to seem like a commodity."
Cindy Sherman
"The work is what it is and hopefully it's seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I'm not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff."
Cindy Sherman
"We’re all products of what we want to project to the world. Even people who don’t spend any time, or think they don’t, on preparing themselves for the world out there - I think that ultimately they have for their whole lives groomed themselves to be a certain way, to present a face to the world."
Cindy Sherman
"I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear."
Cindy Sherman
"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."
Cindy Sherman
"I am always surprised at all the things people read into my photos, but it also amuse me. That may be because I have nothing specific in mind when I’m working. My intentions are neither feminist nor political. I try to put double or multiple meanings into my photos, which might give rise to a greater variety of interpretations."
Cindy Sherman
"I didn’t think of what I was doing as political. To me it was a way to make the best out of what I liked to do privately, which was to dress up."
Cindy Sherman
"The way I see it, as soon as I make a piece I’ve lost control of it."
Cindy Sherman
"One reason I was interested in photography was to get away from the preciousness of the art object."
Cindy Sherman
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