Images from Cindy Sherman's society portraits series (2008.)
A friend recently recounted an anecdote about teaching Cindy Sherman’s work to her undergraduate students. She was in the middle of her lecture, explaining Sherman’s elaborate, chameleonic process of casting herself in various roles in her photographs, when one student interrupted, insisting that the photograph projected on screen must have been Photoshopped, that it was impossible that the woman in this image was the same person as in the one before. The others nodded in agreement. Faced with this chorus of disbelief, my friend checked her notes: the image on her slide was from the mid-1980s, several years before Photoshop’s commercial release. The process of creating it was, indeed, analog: the photograph was shot on film, and Sherman’s apparent physical mutation in it the result of costuming and skillfully applied makeup rather than digital manipulation. However, the students’ responses raise interesting questions about how we might conceive of her work in the wake of the digital, particularly since her most recent work has, in fact, made use of such software.
For those of us who first encountered Sherman’s photographs before “Photoshopped” became part of the vernacular, her work carries rather different connotations: it is less about a process of editing or altering the image than one of altering the self through a kind of private performance staged for the camera. Sherman transforms herself, in each image, to the point that she is not only no longer wholly recognizable, but also no longer present as “Cindy Sherman” at all, instead appearing as a litany of characters and stock types. As she noted in an interview with filmmaker John Waters in the catalogue of her current MoMA retrospective, “Before I ever photographed it, I was playing around in costumes and dressing up as characters in my bedroom.”
It is precisely this aspect of dressing up—of adopting and embodying different types—around which much of the critical reception of her work has revolved over the past decades. Moreover, she has maintained a rigorously private studio practice throughout her career, rarely, if ever, working with assistants: Sherman is not only photographer and model, but also hairdresser, costumer, makeup artist, and prop stylist. She performs in front of the camera, but also behind it, adopting multiple roles and functions over the course of creating each photograph. When presented in serial form, the photographs reveal the meticulousness of her process, with each successive image calling further attention to the laborious transformation involved in creating the one preceding it....