In advance of doing the Stereotypes exercise I worked through the resources in the course notes to research into Cindy Sherman’s work.
Feminism and postmodernism
My understanding of Sherman’s work was helped by Mary Warner Marien’s summary of an earlier article by Craig Owens, The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism (1983), where “Owens pointed out a convergence of ‘the postmodern critique of representation’ and ‘the feminist critique of patriarchy’” (Marien 2014: 450)
Owens used Sherman as an example of the convergence: “Owens was one of the first to fix on the notion that, if gender is not innate but culturally acquired, it can also be culturally rejected and redirected.” (ibid: 451)
This built on my reading of Woodward’s Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2004: 6-8) and its explanation of identity being a combination of structure (external: socially recognised positions, constraints) and agency (internal: personality, individual control) – and to what extent gender roles are constructed and maintained in societies, often unknowingly and from a surprisingly early age (ibid: 55-60).
With that as a backdrop, Sherman’s work makes more sense: she is, in a lot of her work, revealing the gender stereotypes formed by societal structures that are so pervasive as to be almost invisible. She does this by embodying these stereotypes, solidifying them into characters that she plays and photographs. She questions and challenges gender expectations.
For me some of her projects work better than others. The Untitled Film Stills (1977-80) that became her calling card are subtly beguiling when seen together but over-exposure of some images in photography circles has dulled some of the impact of individual photos.
Sherman said of Untitled Film Stills “These are pictures of emotions personified, entirely of themselves, with their own presence. I’m trying to make people recognize something of themselves, rather than me.” (Grundberg 1999)
The Centrefolds or Horizontals (1981) collection is, I think, more interesting and underrated. She mimicked the format and pose of girlie magazines but presented herself as (clothed) vulnerable young women – deliberately making the viewer feel uneasy. This is the only set where she acknowledges that the male gaze was a deliberate consideration (Sherman 1994).
Later works are more variable. Some projects moved beyond stereotypes into caricature, and these are less successful in my view. There’s a mocking undertone to, for example, the images of the rich and famous of LA that make me think of the similar accusations levelled at some of Martin Parr’s work. Other projects, such as the Clowns pictures and the fashion work with Balenziaga for Vogue, seem very contrived and less meaningful than her best work.
One set that is atypical in her output but impressively so is Sex Pictures (1989-92). In it she eschews the self-portraiture to use medical dolls and artificial body parts to recreate sexual scenes, to build a brutal critique of pornography. It reminded me of Jake & Dino Chapman’s work.
Outlook and approach
Interviews with Sherman provided an insight into her working methods. She was interested in issues of identity at an early age, documenting herself in an ongoing project she called The Cindy Book from about 10 years old.
Not a stereotypical (of course not!) ‘angry radical feminist’ by any means, Sherman concedes that while a certain feminism comes out in her work, the impetus is mostly subconscious. From the 1994 BBC documentary Nobody’s Here But Me:
“It’s hard to describe the way I work, cos I work so intuitively… I often times don’t know what I’m going after until it’s shot, or after I’ve done several shots. And sometimes I don’t know about what I’ve done until I read what someone has written about it.” (Sherman 1994)
The way in which she works can be read as a statement in itself, and Charlotte Cotton makes an interesting observation on the dual role as model and photographer, calling her work: “a perfect condensation of postmodernist photographic practice: she is both observer and observed. (Cotton 2009: 193).
Cotton, C. (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. (4th ed). UK: Laurence King Publishing.
Sherman, C. (1997) Cindy Sherman: Retrospective. 2nd edn. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.
Woodward, K. (ed.) (2004) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity (2nd edition). London: Open University.
http://www.jca-online.com/sherman.html (accessed 06/04/2016)
http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=mZekNrhRWek (accessed 06/04/2016)
http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=tiszC33puc0 (accessed 06/04/2016)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtATCPCC8b8 (accessed 06/04/2016)
http://vimeo.com/2176377 (accessed 06/04/2016)
http://vimeo.com/35780957 (accessed 06/04/2016)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXKNuWtXZ_U (accessed 06/04/2016)