CAT 111: Media Mats & Proc
April 7, 2008
Thoroughly (Post)Modern Cindy
Through photographing herself, Cindy Sherman has created a library of stirring images that tell a tale greater than that of the self. Her self-portraits, began with the Untitled Film Stills of 1977-1980, develop a concept of self by “provok[ing] questions of alienation, female identity, and transformation in a postmodern age” (Knafo 139). After the Film Stills, her self-portraits move to darker phases of dress-up, from outward appearances to inner demons in the late 1980s. She then harkened back to Renaissance portraiture, with the addition of masks and prosthetic body parts. Emerging out of those portraits came her most recent works where dolls replace the self in her portraits. Each of these phases “can be viewed as progressively peeling off layers in order to arrive at deeper truths, more frightening wishes, and archaic anxieties” and represents increasingly darker views on femininity, sexuality, and the self (140).
Despite distinctly changing photographic phases, Sherman’s work remains thoroughly postmodern. Rather than focusing on others and hiding the photographer as most photographers did before, Sherman instead “destroy[s] the distinction between the active photographer and the passive model so completely” that audiences must digest and discern for themselves (Guimond 577). This amalgamation of model, photographer, and director almost calls for her works to be viewed as autobiographical, “as self-constructions… her images are autobiographical because they do create an identity for Sherman as a combination auteur, model, photographer, artist, and ‘film star’” (582). Furthermore, her images present a strong sense of self, as Cindy Sherman herself has created the whole work of art.
Her work begins with the Untitled Film Stills that present herself as “an isolated self who remained constant despite her changing exterior. The self she showed was one primarily defined by others” (Knafo 159). Moving further into her work of reinvented classics, she added fake body parts to her own feminine body and eventually moved to photographing dolls, creating selves decreasingly attached to a viewer’s reality. Yet these multiple versions of Sherman’s self should not be taken as a “sign that there is no real self,” but instead that a postmodern world can support them all simultaneously, granting society the freedom to choose which self it prefers (161).
Not only do Cindy Sherman’s works redefine the model/photographer dichotomy, and modern conceptions of the self, but they also raise questions as to the classically fetishized female. Traditional nude images of women feature “photographed by a male photographer. The woman, her eyes almost always averted, is all fetishized body, posed and lighted so that body (or selected parts of it) appears to be an ideal one, crisp and elegant as she pretends to sleep or sun-bathe” (Guimond 574). Sherman changes “the traditional photographic division of males as active (photographers) and women as passive (models) by acting as her own photographer” (586). This simultaneously destroys and enhances views of the female body by proving that women, too, enjoy viewing the female body. However, Sherman’s later, more grotesque work places another spin on the sexual female body, suggesting that perfect bodies are not always available, and that a traditionally unfavorable female body warrants viewing as well.
This is particularly evident in Sherman’s recreations of Renaissance paintings, where she utilized obviously fake body parts in a style of art that most classically fetishized the female body, marking “a shift from the earlier ‘innocence’ of her feminine figures subjected to the absent spectator’s gaze and forms a link with her later series Sex Pictures, where the viewer is caught, uncomfortably, looking” (Betterton 93). Beyond subject matter, Sherman’s works further create awkward and uncomfortable feelings in that they demonstrate no narrative context. Beginning with her most famous work, Untitled Film Stills, her photographs and collections are largely untitled and made up of individuals. This too, places Sherman with postmodernist views of “micronarratives and simulacra, a celebration of the artist’s ability to create a multiplicity of inauthentic selves” (Guimond 582). Occasionally a character of hers may be seen more than once, but the occurrences tell no story between them, leaving Sherman’s viewers to digest each of her images singularly.
While placing Sherman’s works into a postmodern category seems to ally her with other artists, Sherman’s photographs continually stand out against other postmodernists, feminists, and photographers. Sherman began her artistic training as a painter, and discovered photography as equally time consuming, but allowing her to spend more time on conceptualization rather than execution of ideas. Her first works clearly emulated other photographers, directors, and actors in that they were intended to remind viewers of various types of movie damsels and heroines. Yet Sherman did not stop after emulating and mocking one genre of women, “she literally made a spectacle of herself as she became an innocent girl, seductress, man, woman, hermaphrodite, old, young, rich, poor, monster, beast, and etc” (Knafo 140). Her ability to assume multiple roles in each of her collections and in her overall life’s work speaks “of the lack of a set feminine identity in modern life” as well as Sherman’s own strong identity (144).
Sherman defies categorization with other artists due to her continually evolving style, her ability to assume multiple roles both behind and in front of the camera, and the individualistic impact her images have upon viewers. Her series of photographs string along single images that simultaneously speak of Sherman as photographer, Sherman as sitter, viewer as photographer, and society as sitter. Throughout a career photographer herself and dolls (as images of self), Cindy Sherman has consistently shocked and satisfied her audiences in a quest for self, femininity, and post-modernity.
Betterton, Rosemary. Promising Monsters: Pregnant Bodies, Artistic Subjectivity, and Maternal Imagination.” Hypatia 21.1 (2006) 80-100.
Guimond, James. “Auteurs as Autobiographers: Images by Jo Spence and Cindy Sherman.” Modern Fiction Studies 40.3 (1994) 573-591.
Knafo, Danielle. “Dressing Up and Other Games of Make-believe: The Function of Play in the Art of Cindy Sherman.” American Imago 53.2 (1996) pp 139-164.