Cindy Sherman: Appropriation and the Archive
"I’ve always played with make-up to transform myself, but
everything, including the lighting, was self taught. I just learned
things as I needed to use them. I absorbed my ideas for the women in
these photos from every cultural source that I’ve ever had access to,
including film, TV, advertisements, magazines, as well as any adult
role models from my youth"
(Cindy Sherman, quoted in Monique Beudert and Sean Rainbird, eds., Contemporary Art: The Janet Wolfson de Botton Gift, p. 99.)
Cindy Sherman (b. 1954, Glen Ridge, N.J.) emerged onto the New York art scene in the early 1980s as part of a new generation of artists concerned with the codes of representation in a media-saturated era. Along with many artists working in the 1980s, Sherman explored photography as a way to reveal and examine the cultural constructions we designate as truth. Confronting the belief that photographs are truthful documents, Sherman’s fictional narratives suggested that photographs, like all forms of representation, are ideologically motivated. She is aware that the camera is not a neutral device but rather a tool that frames a particular viewpoint.
Sherman’s reputation was established early on with her Untitled Film Stills, a series of 69 black-and-white photographs that she began making in 1977, when she was twenty-three. In this series, the artist depicted herself dressed in the various melodramatic guises of clichéd B-movie heroines presented in 8 x 10 publicity stills from the 1950s and 1960s. In photograph after photograph, Sherman both acts in and documents her own productions. Although Sherman is both model and photographer, these images are not autobiographical. Rather, they memorialize absence and leave us searching for a narrative and clues to what may exist beyond the frame of the camera.
By the time Sherman made the Untitled Film Stills, black-and-white photography was already recognized as belonging to the past, and the styles she replicated were taken not from her own generation but from that of her mother’s. Sherman used wigs and makeup as well as vintage clothing to create a range of female characters. She sets her photos in a variety of locations, including rural landscapes, cities, and her own apartment. Although many of the pictures are taken by Sherman herself using an extended shutter release, for others she required help, sometimes enlisting friends and family. The characters she created include an ingénue finding her way in the big city, a party girl, a housewife, a woman in distress, a dancer, and an actress. In 1980 she completed the series and has said that she stopped when she ran out of clichés to depict. Unlike the media images they refer to, Sherman’s stills have a deliberate artifice that is heightened by the often-visible camera cord, slightly eccentric props, unusual camera angles, and by the fact that each image includes the artist rather than a recognizable actress or model. Sherman remains an important figure, with works in major collections around the globe, and continues to create striking, imaginative art.
- Look carefully at this photo. What do you notice?
- What type of character do you see? What are some of the traits that this photo suggests about its subject? Write a brief character profile that includes what you imagine is her age, livelihood, and living situation. Is she naive or experienced, trustworthy or dishonest? Explain what in the photo suggests these conclusions to you.
- It has been noted that Sherman’s characters frequently appear to be gazing at something outside our view. What might she be looking at?
- Sherman has explained that she called this series of images “film stills” because she was thinking of publicity stills that used to be used to advertise movies. What type of film might this be an advertisement for?
- The ambiguity of Sherman’s work encourages a wide range of interpretations. Her images evoke events in possible narratives that the viewer may invent or interpret in different ways. Invent a narrative where this photo is woven into the story line.
- What clues does Sherman provide for us that let us know that this photograph is set in a different time period?
- On your own, or with a partner, write a brief screenplay for this
scene. Where did the character come from? Where might she be headed?
Whom will she meet? What will happen next?
- Students are too young to remember the genre that Sherman’s Film Stills allude to. Turner Classic Movies Web site
maintains a database and archive that will enable students to look at
film stills from the 1950s and ’60s and compare them with Sherman’s
work. How is Sherman’s work similar to the photos in the archive? How
is it different?
- More work from this series, and Sherman’s subsequent work, can be viewed at Moma.org. What aspects of the series are consistent throughout? What parts change?
- Create your own film still. Consider characters from books, films, and
television shows, or make up your own. What costume and props will you
need to transform yourself into that character? What setting will you
choose? What pose and expression will best convey that persona? Once
the costume and setting are established, think about the composition of
the photograph. Will you see the entire figure or only a portion of it?
Consider the lighting and the point of view. Then, with a digital
camera—and like Sherman, the help of a friend or family member—take the
photograph and print it in an 8-x-10-inch format.