Cindy Sherman, in full Cynthia Morris Sherman (born January 19, 1954) is an American artist whose work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, depicting herself in many different contexts and as various imagined characters. Her breakthrough work is often considered to be “Complete Untitled Film Stills,” a series of 70 black-and-white photographs of herself in many of the roles of women in performance media (especially arthouse films and popular B-movies).
Sherman grew up on Long Island, New York. In 1972 she enrolled at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo and majored in painting, later switching her major to photography. She graduated from SUNY in 1976 and in 1977 began work on Untitled Film Stills (1977–80), one of her best-known series. The series of 8 × 10-inch black-and-white photographs featuring Sherman in a variety of roles is reminiscent of film noir and presents viewers with an ambiguous portrayal of women as sex objects. Sherman stated that the series was “about the fakeness of role-playing as well as contempt for the domineering ‘male’ audience who would mistakenly read the images as sexy.” She continued to be the model in her photographs, donning wigs and costumes that evoke images from the realms of advertising, television, film, and fashion and that, in turn, challenge the cultural stereotypes supported by these media.
During the 1980s Sherman began to use colour film, to exhibit very large prints, and to concentrate more on lighting and facial expression. Using prosthetic appendages and liberal amounts of makeup, Sherman moved into the realm of the grotesque and the sinister with photographs that featured mutilated bodies and reflected such concerns as eating disorders, insanity, and death. Her work became less ambiguous, focusing perhaps more on the results of society’s acceptance of stereotyped roles for women than upon the roles themselves.
Sherman returned to ironic commentary upon clichéd female identities in the 1990s, introducing mannequins into some of her photographs, and in 1997 she directed the dark comedic film Office Killer. Two years later she exhibited disturbing images of savaged dolls and doll parts that explored her interest in juxtaposing violence and artificiality. Sherman continued these juxtapositions in a 2000 series of photographs in which she posed as Hollywood women with overblown makeup and silicone breast implants, again achieving a result of enigmatic pathos. That same year a major retrospective of her work was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. A 2012 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City was accompanied by a film series comprising movies that Sherman saw as having influenced her work. In 2016 Sherman was awarded the Praemium Imperiale prize in painting, a category that also encompasses photography.
Though Sherman herself has repeatedly stressed the degree to which her work has been influenced by the ideas and practices of artists such as Hannah Wilke and Eleanor Antin, she also continues and updates a photographic tradition of models assuming a variety of different guises and personae, a history that includes French surrealist Claude Cahun and Bauhaus photographer Gertrud Arndt. And yet Sherman’s oeuvre essentially reduces the photographic genre of the self-portrait to absurdity. She radically examines today’s dynamics of identity-creation and self-display and the constitutive role that photography—with its ability to fuse the imaginary and the real—plays in that dynamic.
An exhibition of new works by Cindy Sherman opened at Sprüth Magers Berlin in Nov 2020. In this series done in 2019, Sherman impersonates a cast of androgynous characters – the artist continues her long-standing investigation into identity as a social construction, addressing topics such as gender and social roles. Sherman’s new works bring these conversations squarely into the twenty-first century, when gender expression and fluidity have become mainstream subjects, casting further doubt upon the rigid constructs of twentieth-century masculinity and femininity.