The Endless Magic of Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman. Untitled #96, 1981. Chromogenic color print, 24 x 48 inches. [via MOMA]
Postmodernist photographer and artist, Cindy Sherman was born in 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. She became one of the most expensive living women artists to date when her iconic centerfold photo “Untitled #96” (1981) sold in May 2011 for $3.9 million at Christie’s New York. It became, at the time, the most expensive photograph to ever have been sold at auction. A year later she had her first U.S. retrospective in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Known famously for her “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-1980), a series of seventy black and white photographs which mimics stereotypical female B-roles (from career girl, femme fatale, girl on the run, bored housewife, and others) inspired by European arthaus film sets of the 1950s and 1960s. None of the images depict actual films, as the work is completely fictional. However it was one of the few series by Sherman to receive a title, and the only to be shot outside her studio. Not much of a wordsmith, the successful photographer stated in an Art 21 segment that she refrains from titles so not to impose upon the viewer’s ability to form a meaning to her work.

When I see what I want, my intuition takes over—both in the “acting” and in the editing. Seeing that other person that’s up there, that’s what I want. It’s like magic.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled Film Still #58, 1980. Gelatin silver print, 6 5/16 x 9 7/16 inches.  [via MOMA]
Over the past 40 years we have seen how successful Cindy Sherman is in inventing herself for her artistry. With the help of copious amounts of makeup, thrifted clothing, and applications of prosthetic teeth, noses, and the like, Sherman creates a transformative myriad of characters whose lives suggest a complexity of their own. Her playful metamorphosis includes rare mockups as a Vogue cover girl, cringe-worthy clowns, Hampton-like housewives, bored historical subjects of the Old Masters, to green screened women in landscapes she later photographed. Later on Sherman worked with fashion designers, modeling the clothing in her own way. It should go without saying that Sherman’s transformation is as much a performance piece as it is a study on commercialized portraiture.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled #479, 1975. Hand colored gelatin silver prints, 20 1/2 x 33 1/2 inches.[via MOMA]
One of her earliest experimental works, “Untitled #479” (1975), is comprised of twenty-three pasted down contact photographs. While much of Cindy Sherman’s hand is prominent in this DIY – Andy Warhol,  we are exposed to the first moments of Cindy during her transformative process as she switches from a 1970s male, to a Hollywood Starlet, to a hand painted, hair tousled punk taking a drag. The multiplicity factor is astounding, as it is one of the greatest aspects of Cindy Sherman’s work for it leaves the viewer in a constant state of desire to believe in her identity as both artist and subject. You really get a sense of Cindy’s freedom of play, and humor, as she entertains herself in a makeshift photo-booth.

Her work with film, and polaroids, gave the photographer enough time to wipe away the makeup, take her rolls of film to the lab, and accomplish errands during the processing time.

I’d go pick up the film and find that it was all overexposed, or out of focus, or the lighting was no good. So usually the next day, I’d reshoot the whole thing.

Today, Sherman’s latest photographs embrace the popular conventions and processes in digital photography. Her landscapes are taken from the island of Capri and Stromboli, in Iceland during the 2010 volcanic eruption, as well as Shelter Island, New York, which were digitally manipulated to create painterly effects. Later, she added herself into the landscape through a green screen, leaving Sherman to manipulate her facial features digitally.

Sherman’s highly costumed characters appear at odds with the desolate terrain. Speaking on age and consumerism, it would appear that these women are no longer in touch with nature, or capable of utilizing the earth. Vacant stares inhabit age-worn faces, framed by the wild wigs of Sherman.

Cindy Sherman. Untitled #552, 2012. Color photograph, 64 1/4 x 119 inches. [via Gagosian Gallery]
 In “Untitled #552” (2012), Sherman wears a black dress, decorated with white gloves and a matching fluffed lace collar. With her ​​sleek bob, she looks like a part Helen Mirren would play as some governess, or a tragic struck maid. Suddenly these women appear to be disapproving of their natural world. Sherman’s characters loom larger than their environment, creating a dynamic that is just as mystical as they are dramatic. Her works are in your face and fill both gallery and museum walls just as wide as they are tall. For this series, Sherman took on a muralist approach, presenting her images wide, filling a good portion of the wall space.

“You see male artists doing it all the time even when they’re not even well known. They just make a picture as big as the entire wall of the gallery. It seemed like such a big egotistical thing, and I thought well I don’t know of many women that really do that.”

Related photographer:  Nikki S. Lee

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