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Cindy Sherman – Master of the “Disguised” Self Portrait

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Cindy Sherman is universally recognized as one of the influential artists in contemporary art. The world-famous photographer is celebrated for her genius in transformation. Cindy Sherman has a talent for elaborately disguising herself through imagined characters, often commenting on social role playing and stereotypes. Critics and artists alike have deemed her the contemporary master of socially critical photography.

The Beginnings of Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman was born on January 19, 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Her father was an engineer for Grumman Aircraft and her mother taught reading to learning disabled children. Before she was of school age, the family moved to Huntington, Long Island. Sherman was eighteen when she enrolled in the visual arts program at Buffalo State College with an interest in painting. While painting at school she began to explore the idea of dressing up as different characters wearing clothing she found in thrift shops. The creative practice would become the catalyst to what is now the hallmark of her legendary work.

Frustrated with the way painting limited her creativity, she took up photography. In Sherman’s words, she felt she had exhausted all she had to say through painting whereas in picking up a camera she “…. realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead." It was fellow artist and student Robert Longo who encouraged Sherman to record her process of “dolling up” for parties. Longo’s words fueled the beginning of her Untitled Film Still series.

Together with Robert Longo, Charles Clough, and Nancy Dwyer, Sherman created Hallwalls, an arts center intended as a space that welcomed artists from diverse backgrounds. The center got its start in a converted ice packing warehouse. Eventually it moved to The Asbury Methodist church, now known as the Delaware Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, deemed a historic site in 2003.

While she was introduced to photo based conceptual works of artists such as Hannah Wilkin, Eleanor Antin and Adrian Piper, she has said that Andy Warhol was one of her biggest influencers early on in her work.

The Unique Work of Cindy Sherman

Along with thirty other artists, such as Barbara Kruger and John Baldessari, Sherman is considered to be part of the Pictures Generation, 1974-1984. An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that ran from April 29 to August 2, 2009, it was the first by a major museum focused on the group of highly influential New York artists. The exhibition took its name from Pictures, a 1977 group show that was organized by renown art critic and historian Douglas Crimp of New York City’s Artists Space gallery.  

What makes Cindy Sherman’s work unique is her working in series, typically taking pictures of herself in an assortment of costumes. In order to create her photographs, Sherman is alone in her studio. As such, she takes on multiple roles of hairstylist, make-up artist, director, wardrobe, and model.  Sherman’s early work, Bus Riders (1976-2000) were photographs shot in 1976 for the Bus Authority for display on a bus. Sherman used costumes, makeup, and black face to transform her identity for each image. The cutout characters were lined up along the bus’s advertising strip. While many in the art world applauded Sherman’s brilliant series, featuring herself in a variety of meticulously observed characters, the work met with criticism. Some pointed to the work as Sherman’s insensitivity to race as the artist used blackface makeup. Still others pointed out the work intended to expose the racism deeply embedded in society.

It was the sixty-nine black and white photographs Sherman shot for her series Untitled Film Stills that brought her international recognition. The world saw the artist for the master of disguised self-portraits through roles and settings. Some of the roles that were part of the series included hillbilly, seductress and librarian while the settings of beaches, streets, and yards were equally diverse. It was critiqued as reminiscent of the American film noir of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. To preserve the vagueness of the characters Sherman resisted putting titles to the images.

A common theme seen in her heroines was the woman who refused to follow the dictates of society, remaining single and child free. In comparison to her work that followed, they were modest in identical plain black frames and small at 8.5x11. As Sherman was known for shooting in her studio, the photographs in Untitled Film Stills were created using her own personal things as props or borrowed from close friends. While Sherman briefly experimented with taking photographs around New York City, she returned to her apartment preferring to work from home.  

Her work in the 1980s saw Sherman evolve in multiple ways. Sherman began to use other visual forms such as the fashion photograph, the centerfold, historical portrait, and soft-core sex image. Many of her works during this period, like her Fairy Tales and Disastersseries, were shown for the first time at the Metro Pictures Gallery in New York City. It was these works that Sherman took to a medium that brought her more attention - the use of prosthesis and mannequins. However, it was the controversy between the NRA and photographer Mapplethorpe and Jeff Koons’ use of his porn star wife in his series Made in Heaven that drove her to create the controversial Sex series in 1989. It was the first time the artist removed herself from her work as the models for the series were made up of pieced together medical dummies. The series created a stir among multiple art critics like Hal Foster and New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz who after calling them the ‘unsexiest sex pictures ever made” added “Today, I think of Cindy Sherman as an artist who only gets better.”

Sherman’s work is rooted in transformation. She has mastered the art of deception, being her own model for over thirty years. With every shot, she immerses herself in a new setting and theme. With her use of wigs, make-up, and a plethora of costumes she looks nothing like herself. During an interview with the New York Times in 1990, the artist explained her technique saying "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."

Influence of Cindy Sherman

Hailed as an art star in 2009, visual artist Ryan Trecartin points to his introduction to Sherman’s work during his middle school years as the influence for Younger than Jesus. Trecartin and his young friends were taking pictures of themselves while cross dressing and role playing. His videos feature himself and others in wigs, outrageous make-up, and costumes he attributes to Sherman’s own method. MOMA photography curator Eva Respini says of Trecartin’s work “He’s sort of the 21st-century inheritor of Cindy’s legacy.”

Jillian Mayer is a performance artist and filmmaker. The thirty-four-year-old artist’s work has been displayed in galleries and museums internationally. Her films have been shown at Sundance and SXSW. Her work has a “Shermanesque” sense of impersonation. Her 2011 video I Am Your Grandma has Mayer playing the part of both a grandmother and a bawling baby, both characters from the future and non-existent in the present time. Like Sherman, Mayer turns to make-up, headgear, and masks that disguise her as a witchy, almost insect-like character chanting about her love of the non-existent bawling infant. In another “Sherman” move, Mayer’s 2011 work H.I.L.M.D.A. is her way of appropriating a famous work of art, in Mayer’s case her portraying Venus de Milo as she amputates her own arms.  

Mayer credits Cindy Sherman’s trendsetting distorted characters in self-portraiture as opening doors for artists today. Mayer believes Sherman’s work has created multiple and easier avenues for younger artists.  

By inventing her own genre, Cindy Sherman has influenced the way generations of artists think about photography, portraiture, and narrative. With her unparalleled ability to self-morph whether using outmoded make-up, the unusual prosthetic, or today’s digital technology, she executes images of multiple identities and alter egos that make her an icon of photographic self-portraits.  

If traveling is in your future plans, you can see Cindy Sherman’s work in the following collections:

Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

The Broad, Los Angeles, California

The Jewish Museum, New York City, New York

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York

Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York City, New York

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, Wisconsin

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas 

Menil Collection, Houston, TX

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