Life and Art of Cindy Sherman, Feminist Photographer

Cindy Sherman in 2014
WireImage / Getty Images

Cindy Sherman (born January 19, 1954) is an American photographer and filmmaker whose “Untitled Film Stills,” a series of photographs meant to evoke a still shot from a fictional movie, launched her to fame.

Fast Facts: Cindy Sherman

  • Occupation: Artist and photographer
  • Born: January 19, 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, USA
  • Education: Buffalo State College
  • Known For: Photographs exploring themes of feminism, image, subjugation, and superficiality
  • Key Works: Untitled Film Stills series (1977-1980), Centerfolds series (1981)

Sherman is well known for the insertion of her own image into her photographs, donning prosthetics, costume, and makeup to transform herself into the subject of her gaze. Often engaging themes of feminism, image, subjugation, and superficiality, Sherman continues to be sought after as a voice of critique in a media-based world. She is considered a member of the “Pictures Generation” of American artists, who came to prominence in the 1970s and 80s.

Early Life and Family

Cindy Sherman was born Cynthia Morris Sherman on January 19, 1954 in New Jersey. She grew up on Long Island and was the youngest of five children. Because the sibling closest to her age was nine years her senior, Sherman felt like an only child, sometimes forgotten in the midst of so many others in her family. Sherman has said that, as a result of her family dynamic, she sought attention in any way possible. From a very young age, Sherman donned alternate personas with the assistance of her extensive costume wardrome.

She describes her mother as kind-hearted and “good,” though primarily concerned that her children make the right impression (something which tempted the young Sherman to rebel). She has described her father as mean-spirited and closed minded. Sherman's family life was not happy, and when Sherman was 15 years old, her elder brother committed suicide. This trauma had repercussions for Sherman’s personal life, and she cites it as the reason she ended up in several long-term relationships she did not want to be in, believing she could help other men where she could not help her brother. She was married to the video artist Michel Auder for 17 years in the 1980s and 90s, a marriage which ended in divorce.

Beginnings as an Artist

Sherman studied art at Buffalo State College. After graduating, she moved to New York City with artist Robert Longo, who was a fellow art student and Buffalo State graduate.

In the 1970s, New York's streets were gritty and sometimes unsafe. In response, Sherman developed attitudes and attires that acted as coping mechanisms for the discomforts she would meet on her way home—an extension of her childhood habit of dress-up. Though she found it upsetting and uncomfortable, Sherman ultimately saw New York as a place of reinvention. She began to show up to social occasions in costume, and eventually Longo convinced Sherman to begin photographing her characters. These were the beginnings from which the Untitled Stills were born, most of which were photographed in or around the apartment the two shared.

In many ways, the rebellious spirit instilled in Sherman as a child never left her. For example, as her work was gaining popularity in the 1980s, the artist took a turn towards the grotesque, creating work that featured various bodily fluids spilled and smeared within the frame, as a way to challenge the art world’s perception of her as salable and appropriate to “hang above a dining room table.”

In the 1990s, the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew its funding from “controversial” projects. As an act of protest against what she perceived to be a form of censorship, Sherman began to photograph outrageous portraits of genitals, using plastic hospital dummies and mannequins common to medical school classrooms. This type of subversion continues to define Sherman’s career.

Untitled Film Stills

Sherman works in series of photographs in which she builds off a theme that addresses a social issue. Her subjects have been wide-ranging as what it means to age as a woman, the subjugating effect of the male gaze on the female form, and the contorting effects of social media on self-image. Within each series, Sherman acts as the model, costumer, make-up artist, and set designer.

The “Untitled Film Stills” (1977-1980) are arguably Sherman’s most famous works. These images, all in black and white, evoke key moments in Hollywood cinema. Though the “films” from which these photographs were taken do not exist, their appeal lies in fact that they evoke moods played out ceaselessly in popular movies, thus causing the viewer to sense that he or she has seen the film before.

Untitled Film Still #17, 1978 by Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #17 (1978).  tate.org

The tropes portrayed by Sherman include the young ingenue, dominated by the city, who gazes off in fear at an unknown person or object out of frame, and the outcast, standing among detritus and ruins, waiting for someone to arrive. Often, these images contain within them a threat and a feeling that nothing good can come of these situations. By inserting discomfort into images of women, Sherman asks the viewer to consider the subject and understand her vulnerability.

Centerfolds and Later Work

In the early 80s came the “Centerfolds,” a series of double-width images intended to mimic the typically seductive and alluring poses of models placed at the center of adult magazines. Sherman turned the concept of a centerfold on its head by using the format to depict women who had endured physical abuse. The images hold the viewer accountable for approaching the works as if they were designed to please— in Sherman's words, they are a “thwarted expectation."

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92 (1981)
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92 (1981). Centerfolds series.  christies.org

In 2017, Sherman made public her personal Instagram account, which serves as an extension of her practice. Sherman employs the tools of digital airbrushing — intended to falsely alter images of the human face to achieve the tool of flawlessness — and instead pushes these contortions to an extreme. Using applications intended to improve images, Sherman exaggerates features, thus drawing attention to the fine line between inhuman perfection (the type that only social media is capable of showing) and inhuman, almost alien-like alteration. In line with her popularity in the more traditional art world, Sherman's account (@cindysherman) has garnered hundreds of thousands of followers.

Awards and Accolades

Cindy Sherman is a widely honored artist. She has received both a MacArthur Genius Grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is an honorary member of the Royal Academy, and has been represented in numerous biennials across the world.

Sherman continues to be an important voice not only in contemporary art, but also in the media age. Her biting critique gets at the core of an issue and hyper-focuses on it through the poignant and intimate medium of portraiture. She lives in New York with her parrot, Frida, and is represented by Metro Pictures Gallery.

Cindy Sherman Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Cindy Sherman
  • Occupation: Artist and photographer
  • Born: January 19, 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, USA
  • Known For: Photographs exploring themes of feminism, image, subjugation, and superficiality
  • Key Works: Untitled Film Stills series (1977-1980), Centerfolds series (1981)

Sources

  • BBC (1994). Nobody's Here But Me. [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXKNuWtXZ_U. (2012).
  • Adams, T. (2016). Cindy Sherman: "Why am I in these photos?." The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jul/03/cindy-sherman-interview-retrospective-motivation.
  • Russeth, A. (2017). Facetime with Cindy Sherman. W. [online] Available at: https://www.wmagazine.com/story/cindy-sherman-instagram-selfie.