Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman

American Photographer

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."
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Cindy Sherman Signature
"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."
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"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."
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"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."
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"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."
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"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."
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"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."
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"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."
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"The way I see it, as soon as I make a piece I've lost control of it."
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"One reason I was interested in photography was to get away from the preciousness of the art object."
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Summary of Cindy Sherman

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.


  • 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.

Biography of Cindy Sherman

Billboard advertisement for an exhibition by Cindy Sherman in Istanbul, Turkey

Talking about her self-portraits, Cindy Sherman described how, as the youngest child and "total latecomer" in her family, she often dressed up to occupy herself, wondering, "If you don't like me this way, how about you like me this way? Or maybe you like this version of me."

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A Deeper Dive into Sherman: the classical archetypes in her self-portraits.

Progression of Art


Untitled Film Still #13

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.

Some critics criticize Sherman's Film Stills for catering to the male gaze and perpetuating the objectification of women. Others, understand Sherman's approach as critically-ironic parody of female stereotypes. Others still, assert that both cases are simultaneously true, with Sherman knowingly taking on stereotypical female roles in order to question their pervasiveness. At the same time her adoption of these roles inevitably leads her to be objectified further.

Visual culture theorist Jui-Ch'i Liu asserts that many of these critiques focus on male spectatorship, whereas a reading of the images from the perspective of female viewers indicates the possibility of negotiating their own "desire and identification in relation to these images". Sherman has also implied that the works were created primarily for a female viewership, stating that "Even though I've never actively thought of my work as feminist or as a political statement, certainly everything in it was drawn from my observations as a woman in this culture. [...] That's certainly something I don't think men would relate to".

Black and White photograph - The Museum of Modern Art


Untitled Film Still #21

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.

Black and White photograph - The Museum of Modern Art


Untitled #92, "Disasters and Fairy Tales" Series

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."

Color photograph - Metro Pictures


Untitled #209, "History Portrait" Series

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."

Color photograph - The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat


Untitled #264

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.

Chromogenic color print



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 rather direct focus of the clown's eyes 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.

Color photograph - Metro Pictures



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.

Color photograph - Metro Pictures

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Influences and Connections

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Cindy Sherman
Influenced by Artist
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  • Charles Clough
    Charles Clough
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Barbara Jo Revelle
    Barbara Jo Revelle
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  • John Waters
    John Waters
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Bonnie Rosenberg

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

Plus Page written by Kimberly Nichols

"Cindy Sherman Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Bonnie Rosenberg
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Plus Page written by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 01 Dec 2010. Updated and modified regularly
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