Cindy Sherman: Master of Disguise

Cindy Sherman has had a profound effect on the artists of her generation. Her work can be described largely as repellent and yet it is alluring at the same time. There is also the added ingredient of humour instilled in the way she treats issues of femininity, the role of women in society, sexuality and the act of making photographs.

 Her work which includes portrayals of B-grade ‘50s’ and ‘60s’ Hollywood heroines, fashion models and subjects from Old Masters paintings, all becoming the subject and object of her work. We also see works which include artificial body parts, decapitated dolls and grisly scenes of violence being catapulted to the fore.

 Since Cindy Sherman began her career as an art-photographer she has seen the demand for her work grow with an international following. Indeed, she has experienced a giant surge forward from the 1980s. Her photograph of the Hitchhiker sold in 1979 for $50 then was resold at the Christies auction for $200,000. It became clear there had been a dramatic rise in her popularity and appreciation. This also helped to give more value back to the black-and-white photograph.

It is clear that Sherman is a talented artist who uses photography, she creates pictures that arouse and haunt in bizarre and sometimes graphically disturbing images. Despite this she is acknowledged as being of her generation’s most gifted and influential talents.

How did this happen?

The 1980s is described as being an exuberant time in New York as the art world exploded with a new generation of artists such as Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons to name but a few. Running alongside that there were the newly rich stock-broker whiz kids who would hotly bid against each other to acquire the hottest and hippest new investment portfolio which were the works of these young artists.

Then there was The Kitchen, an alternative space normally showcasing the work of performance artists, and said to be the cradle of the late 20th Century avant-garde. During this time The Kitchen hosted a photography exhibit, Untitled Film Still, by the little known Cindy Sherman. She gained a resoundingly positive response from her peers and her audience began to grow. The film stills raised lots of questions  as people wondered if they were taken from real movies and if they were what could they be about? Who was the “actor” in them and where did this unknown artist come from with such a quirky oeuvre?

The film stills made up of a mix of provocative images were a reminder of films by directors John Ford, Roberto Rossellini and Roger Vadim. All of these featured women in roles that seemed vaguely familiar. From then on a star was born, and Cindy Sherman became one of the 20th Century’s 25 most influential artists (ARTnews,  May 1999). Profound changes in the art world took place in the 15 years following that successful show at the Kitchen with many of the artists mentioned having either died or had ceased creating any works of interest to the art world. Artists such as Sherman received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and sell her Untitled Film Stills to the Museum of Modern Art  in New York for more than $1 million, creating a new era in photography and the way in which it was viewed.

The quiet girl from the suburbs of Long Island rocked the world of popular culture like no other artist since Andy Warhol. She has appeared in rock lyrics and underwritten by Madonna. All this shook the art world. As she dressed up, played with dolls, assumed roles, she gave voice to creative issues of our time with graphic exploration. At the same time she provided a way through her art-photography for the viewer to enter into a good old-fashioned horror movie.

 In her own words, “The only reason I don’t call myself a photographer is that I don’t think other people who consider themselves photographers would think I am one of them”.

 Do we know who she is? Why are we so engaged, amused and horrified by  her images? Are Sherman’s photographs Rorschachs’ for the end of the 20th Century.


  1. Eileen 19 March 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Hi Rhonda,

    Interesting post. I have to confess that I don’t know a great deal about Sherman’s work. I have seen it of course and looked closely at a few images but haven’t really engaged with it. My initial reaction to an artist whose entire work is pictures of themselves is to suspect narcissism and self-absorption. I know that’s not necessarily a fair reflection of her work but it is why I find it a bit off-putting. I’m also conscious that while her work might be exploring and challenging perceptions of femininity the pictures are at the same time the thing they are said to challenge. I wonder if they would be so successful or command such high prices if they were not, on average, so easy on the eye.

    So I think my answer to your first question is no: I don’t feel that I know who she is. I don’t feel able to comment on the later questions, but would like to understand better.

    I was struck by your comment that her work has been very influential and has inspired other artists. I’m interested to know more about that and would be grateful for any examples of artists who have been influenced by her or some more information about how her influence has shown itself.

  2. CliveW 19 March 2011 at 8:59 pm

    Based on an idea by David Bowie?

    I can’t think of any one who affected different public personas prior; perhaps that was a development of the ‘characters’ at Warhol’s Factory.

    It was an idea that was ripe for its time and easily accessible but with the potential for a developing subtext.

    Perhaps that’s why she features in photography and art examination papers at GCSE and A-level.

    Madonna and Lady Gaga have got some mileage out of it.

  3. Eileen 20 March 2011 at 11:02 am

    I didn’t know she’d made it to the school syllabus, though on reflection I can see how her work could be used as the basis for essays and project work and maybe some general consciousness-raising.

    I can also see why it would be attractive in pop culture.

  4. Peter Haveland 20 March 2011 at 11:46 am

    “My initial reaction to an artist whose entire work is pictures of themselves is to suspect narcissism and self-absorption” what a strange comment. The self portrait has been central to artistic practice since Ugh senior made a hand print on the wall of the cave. Given the prominence of questions around the subject of identity and the place of feminist critique in post-structuralist discourse added to the questions surrounding authorship and authenticity raised by post-modern thinkers, who else would be the subject of anyone’s work? The contemporary fine artist making a landscape painting or photograph (not an illustrator, a fine artist) is making images every bit as much about themselves in the world as is Cindy Sherman, Jo Spence, and all the vast array of artists who are their own model.

  5. Eileen 20 March 2011 at 12:28 pm

    If you read on from the quoted comment Peter I think it is clear that I wasn’t suggesting that that is necessarily a fair or reasonable critique, but simply an instinctive reaction to this work. I think one person’s instinctive reaction to something is as valid as anyone else’s: it’s a starting point for a further analysis and not an end point.

    I think there is a difference between an artist who sometimes takes their own image as a subject (Rembrandt is one of my earliest artistic heroes: Helen Chadwick’s work and artistic progress fascinates me) and someone who only makes pictures of themselves. I’m not suggesting that the latter is not a valid form of work. Not exploring the possibility of narcissism (which might in fact be one element of the subject matter of this work, in a socio-political or any other sense) seems to me to potentially leave a gap in the analysis.

    I also agree that taking pictures of any subject is in many ways an image of oneself. You could argue that it’s more honest to cut out the pretence and just concentrate exclusively on your own image, and maybe that is what Sherman is doing.

    I’d still really appreciate your or others’ take on Cindy Sherman’s wider influence.

  6. rhonda 20 March 2011 at 1:10 pm

    If we think about how photography has become so pervasive within pop culture and consider current events, tabloid gossip to favourite family photographs, using photography to document our lives. Could it be that it is as if we don’t believe our own realities unless we see it in a picture of video? Then the corollory is true too: When we do see something on television or in the media it may seem as though it is real even it is fiction. What is it about photographs that they seem to offer us truths? Are they mirrors of reality? The question is perhaps what is it that we want to believe? Sherman’s work explores these questions.

    Sherman is an artist who uses photography but does not consider herself to be a photographer. In her pictures she appears as a model but insists her work has nothing to do with her. She calls into question accepted notions of femininity, then claims she is not making work as a feminist statment. She makes up stories with no beginnings or endings, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination to come up with the narrative. The question is how does Sherman reconcile these apparent contradictions? Could it be that she does not and that perhaps paradox is the core of what makes her work irresistible to a very wide audience.

  7. Peter Haveland 20 March 2011 at 7:49 pm

    I have to confess to being very wary of instinctive, gut or knee-jerk reactions in any student or academic. It is usually a triumph of prejudice over thought.
    Paradox and irony are at the centre of any post-modern practice. Reality was under question at the very least and the death of the referent, the copy of that which does not exist, epitomised post-modern thinking.

  8. Gareth 20 March 2011 at 8:38 pm

    I think Peter, if Eileen was saying ‘this is my instinctive reaction, full stop’ I would be with you, but she does say it is her starting point. As long as instinctive reaction is a starting point for reflection, I don’t see any great problem with it.

    1. anned 27 March 2011 at 12:16 pm

      My view is that it is an enormous problem if anyone wishing to point out the problems inherent with someone’s specific instinctive reaction are not allowed to do so freely. Particularly when they do so in an apposite manner.

  9. nmonckton 24 March 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Have to agree with Gareth – how else do you start to understand something except by reacting to it. Without the intial gut reaction surely there can be no engagement. Surely a much bigger danger to academia is to move from that reaction to acceptance or rejection without the intervening thought. ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’ or ‘I don’t know much about art but my tutor says it’s good/bad’

    1. anned 25 March 2011 at 6:12 pm

      From the narcissism angle – I don’t see Cindy Sherman’s work in that way, it seems rather to question the idea of identity as a fixed thing, to raise the possibility that we construct our own identity using pre-existing templates and not from any stable essence. She could be seen as erasing herself in some ways.

      Also, I don’t think this is just a female issue, she happens to be a woman so she is seen as making work questioning ideas about the feminine, just because she’s a woman. But the questions she’s raising may not be confined to the feminine, but be about identity generally. I don’t know whether work by male artists is always assumed to be about male issues, I suspect not:)

      1. Keith Greenough 27 March 2011 at 8:11 pm

        Whilst I agree that the identity of men is conditioned by ‘pre-existing templates’, I don’t think that Cindy Sherman’s work is intended to raise issues about male identity – except perhaps questions about the male ‘gaze’. Her body of work explores how women are depicted by by a wide range of image makers- from directors of B movies to portrait artists to the sex industry and others.

        The photographs are not self portraiture. Her aim is to depict ‘types’. This view is reinforced by her decision to caption the photographs as ‘Untitled’. She is also quoted as saying that she finished the film stills series when she ‘ran out of cliches’.

        Personally, I think that her work is most powerful when one looks at a collection of the images rather than looking at individual pictures. This way one can see more clearly the gamut of stereotypes that exist – stereotypes which have been defined by how men wish to view women.

      2. anned 28 March 2011 at 7:53 am

        I can’t seem to reply to Keith.

        Yes I agree you could see her work as questioning the nature of femininity – that feminity is a constructed thing rather than something stable and fixed. And that the male gaze as the dominant gaze in society is part of the thing that constructs it.

        But that in itself might have implications for identity as a whole – because it destablises feminity -then if the masculine is partially constructed in opposition to the feminine – a sort of binary system – maybe it starts to break down a little. Well I don’t know I’m confusing myself again:)

  10. nmonckton 24 March 2011 at 8:55 pm

    And responding more directly to the original piece by Rhonda, I’m not sure I understand this paragraph:
    “It is clear that Sherman is a talented artist who uses photography, she creates pictures that arouse and haunt in bizarre and sometimes graphically disturbing images. Despite this she is acknowledged as being of her generation’s most gifted and influential talents.”

    Why ‘Despite this…”? Am I missing something – it’s because of this – creating pictures that ‘arouse and haunt’ must be the aim of many photographers/artists (unless you’re using ‘arouse’ in the purely sexual sense) Yes, some of the images are bizarre and graphically disturbing – isn’t this part of their attraction – but they could just as easily fit into dark humour. The dolls in pornographic positions are a case in point – the gut reaction is either to laugh or be revolted. The needle has gone in, the drug of thought isn’t far behind. Why did I laugh? Why am I revolted?

    Perhaps your Rorschach analogy is not so far from the truth, although it’s far from a unique property of Cindy Sherman – in my view it could well be a sufficient condition for good art.

    Untitled Film Still #3 is a case in point for me – it’s just a picture of a young woman in a kitchen – so why does looking at it make me feel uncomfortable? is it because it’s a representation of a private moment with someone out of shot? Is it the ‘unseen’ intrusion on a private domestic situation? Or simply the ‘hollywood starlet’ pose and the non-fit between the pose and the situation? or even more simply – the pose?
    And if that wasn’t enough to wonder about, I still haven’t worked out what’s going on? What happened before, What happened after? All this from one shot and you ask (even rhetorically :o))why we’re engaged with her work?

  11. Rob 24 March 2011 at 10:06 pm

    “What happened before, what happened after…”

    That’s for you to decide.

    There’s one possible reading in Angier’s “Train your gaze” though.

  12. nmonckton 25 March 2011 at 8:05 am

    That was my point Rob – her photos offer so many readings it isn’t surprising people engage with them.

  13. rhonda 25 March 2011 at 9:25 am

    Reacting to it is exactly what Sherman wants the viewer to do, she gives out just enough information to imply something by setting up the “action” then leaves it to the viewer to determine what is going on. The viewer then is left to decide the meaning of her images. What we see when looking at them is simply what is there in front of us and there lies the question – What do we see? Why do we see that? Perhaps we could say that Sherman’s photographs are springboards into our own emotions and not hers.

    1. nmonckton 25 March 2011 at 10:47 am

      Agree entirely – says what I was trying to say only in far fewer words.

  14. CliveW 25 March 2011 at 10:54 am

    ‘Perhaps we could say that Sherman’s photographs are springboards into our own emotions and not hers.’

    Although she is presenting them and in so doing giving (or giving away) something of herself too.

    One could posit that all photographers, in some way, hide behind their images as masks. The majority certainly hide behind their cameras when they make them.

  15. rhonda 25 March 2011 at 11:37 am

    Sherman grew up in a household as though she was an only child, 19 year span between her and the oldest sibling. She began to engage in games of make-believe, collecting old clothes and objects she would use when playing dressing up. Not the usual kind of dressing up as we do as children,but would dress up and invent other characters, joined in this play by her friends. Either dressed as a monster or old lady she would walk around fooling the neighbours prefering this to being a “Barbie” lookalike. Sehrman grew up in a time of the advent of television she was part of the TV generation. Living in an era of archetypal post-World War II suburban community. An area of nuclear white families, Amercian made cars, good public schools and so on. Set against the backdrop of assination of J F Kennedy, race riots, Vietnam War, first man on the moon and the counter culture of “Woodstock”. With all of this going on and being televised including various televion shows and movies, Sherman begins to learn about the different roles and identities that the culture offered at that time, especially to women. Sherman is weened on what she sees from the vantage point of a childhood immersed in TV with social and sexual roles being clearly defined. Her emotions, therefore, are saturated with television’s portrayal including shows such as the Mary Tyler Moore show which she is said remembers with fondness.

  16. Peter Haveland 25 March 2011 at 11:52 am

    The best discussion of Sherman’s work for me is the ‘October Files 6: Cindy Sherman’ published in 2006 by MIT press ISBN 0-262-542463-5
    However, this is not an introduction type of book by any means and does require a familiarity with the language of Cultural Theory but if you can wrestle with this it has a great deal to say, not only about Sherman’s work but post-modern art in general. Anyone coming to this book might consider starting with Judith Williamson’s Piece (p39) rather than start at the beginning as Craig Owens makes no concessions to the non-academic at all. Laura Mulvey’s and Raosalind Krauss’ articles are very approachable so by reading the less obscure ones first the language of the denser (stand up the clever clogs at the back who said “obscurantist”!) ones should be a bit clearer.
    Perhaps a book to try to get from a big library rather than buy unless you are sure you want to struggle with it or maybe a group of students might want to pass it round between themselves. I wonder of some sort of book share/secondhand market or whatever isn’t something that the student association might like to look into.

    BTW does anyone know the current position with university library access for OCA students?

    1. Gareth 25 March 2011 at 3:15 pm

      Good advice Peter. Students who have had a course assessed will be enrolled by BNU and therefore eligible to use any University Library through the SCONUL scheme. It is pretty straight forward, they get a BNU registration card from the OCA Head Office and then present it at the University Library. This means they will be able to use library facilities in situ, but not borrow books.

      1. Peter Haveland 25 March 2011 at 7:21 pm

        Good news Gareth.
        I would urge all students who are within striking distance of a college library to do this. An awful lot of art books are expensive from the start and produced in smallish runs so when the edition runs out the second hand value rockets. On top of this, one often only wants to read a small portion of many books so buying them is by no means attractive (unless you love books like I do!) and they have journals that have opinion of the moment!!

  17. rhonda 28 March 2011 at 10:30 am

    The last two comments from Ann have not been posted so here is the latest one I copied into the box.

    I can’t seem to reply to Keith.

    Yes I agree you could see her work as questioning the nature of femininity – that feminity is a constructed thing rather than something stable and fixed. And that the male gaze as the dominant gaze in society is part of the thing that constructs it.

    But that in itself might have implications for identity as a whole – because it destablises feminity -then if the masculine is partially constructed in opposition to the feminine – a sort of binary system – maybe it starts to break down a little. Well I don’t know I’m confusing myself again:)

  18. Rob 28 March 2011 at 4:59 pm

    They have – they’re replies to earlier comments. Might be an idea to remove the e-mail address and IP details…

  19. anned 28 March 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks Rob for spotting that and to whoever sorted it out!

  20. Joseph Sicari 14 July 2011 at 6:40 am

    Props for this kind of a good post, maintain up your excellent function.

  21. rhonda 14 July 2011 at 8:49 am

    thanks Joseph will do.


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