Cindy Sherman once stated, “A photograph should transcend itself, the image its medium, in order to have its own presence” (Sherman, Statement 926). Her body of work is vast and is reminiscent of countless individual perspectives of the world. Sherman is best known for her work because she is the primary subject for her photography. However, Sherman’s work is not self-portraiture, in that she is not trying to show the world who she is. She says, “I’m trying to make other people recognize something of themselves rather than of me” (Sherman, Statement 926). Sherman, a woman, dresses up as various unique women and this calls for a feminist analysis. But, her work goes beyond the purposes of feminism. One might even interpret her work as adhering to sexism and the objectification of women, but I argue that her work is in fact “working from the inside” of patriarchy in order to dismantle it and force the viewer to realize that they are a part of that society and actively accept and challenge it as a part of themselves.
It is a common misconception that photography is a vehicle for reproducing historical truth. Art photographers have taken this medium and expanded its purpose from documenting historical and everyday events into fantastic and dream-like scenes that are constructed, thus “unreal.” Concerning the medium of photography as art, Batchen argues that “… the production of any and every photograph involves… practices of manipulation…. the absence of truth is an inescapable fact of photographic life” (Batchen 48). He also proposes that photography is on the verge of death. But, the death of photography has been occurring since its conception, and not in the sense that people will no longer use it, but because it cannot provide us with any form of truth. He says, “photography’s passing must necessarily entail the inscription of another way of seeing—and of being” (Batchen 50). Sherman’s work is indicative of this change in the purpose of photography, not just because she fully constructs the scenes in her work and utilizes herself as the primary subject, but because she is challenging her viewer’s way of interpreting the world.
Sherman’s black and white series, The Untitled Film Stills is one of her most important bodies of work because of the controversial feminine nature in which she presents herself. Sherman takes a variety of dramatic and vulnerable female roles in each photograph, and records scenes she has constructed, as if they were taken in Hollywood films from the 1950s. In Untitled #6 (Fig. 1), Sherman is the center of attention, spread across a bed wearing an open silk robe, revealing the front of her body, wearing a bra and panties, and with a mirror in hand. Sherman’s pose in Untitled #6 is entirely feminine, in the sense that she is open, and revealing her body, rendering her vulnerable and helpless. Indeed femininity is synonymous with vulunerability. Her gaze is directed somewhere out of the frame, thus having the interpretation of being non-confrontational, and perhaps in distress.
It is easy to interpret this photograph in particular with having no other purpose than to perpetuate feminine stereotypes of vanity and helplessness. Another interpretation of this photograph however, does not serve as a reification of the helplessness and sexual objectification of women, but forces the viewer to wonder about the thoughts this woman may be having at this very moment. Her gaze is not blank and dumb, but thoughtful and with expectation. As a female viewer, one must think “to reveal, re/discover our true selves, we have to follow the feminine… gaze… The woman… looks somewhere above herself… beyond the frames of the picture”(Kérchy 187). In fact, the woman must look within herself, so the mirror in her hand is useless, and maybe Sherman is realizing this. It seems as though she is at the very moment when she feels like she can let her image free. This is in stark contrast to the penetrating and non-pensive male gaze that defines and objectifies women. Kérchy describes Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills as “a revolutionary feminist attempt encouraging female spectators… to inspect their internalization of images of femininity and—after having recognized their misrecognition as feminine subjects—to try to look and see who they really are” (Kérchy 185). Indeed, there is more depth to women and femininity than is shown through appearances, fashion, and sex.
The Centerfold Series contains some of Sherman’s first explorations with color photography. She continues some of the same feminist and voyeuristic themes as seen in the Untitled Film Stills. However, Sherman makes even more extreme and emotional leaps into the intimate lives of women she becomes. When viewing the Centerfolds, one experiences “isolated women… in private settings, [and] we inadvertently take on the role of voyeur” (Knafo 147). Sherman’s imagery causes discomfort and uncertainty for intruding on these women by presenting these photographs as large 24” x 48” spreads. In Untitled #96 (Fig. 2), she is dressed as an adolescent and is spread out onto the tiled floor, with an ad from a newspaper clutched in her hand and the other hand placed beside her head. The presentation of this photograph is reminiscent of pornographic spreads in magazines, and she is again vulnerable, and stretched across the image, making it easy for the viewer (male and female) to consume her (Jones 41).
Her adolescent age is apparent because of the flatness of her breasts and her sneaker visible through the top left corner of the frame. This is in contrast with Untitled #6, where her sex appeal is flaunted by her nearly naked, spread body. The sexual nature of Untitled #96 is much more subtle if we were to take a closer look at her red-painted nails and the slight up of her skirt. These small details label her as a feminine being, thus sexual. According to Knafo, “The culture’s stunning superficiality is reflected back to us and the question as to whether the artist will quest for an inner, psychological identity is still open” (Knafo 147). Sherman’s gaze toward somewhere outside of the frame is shown here, like in Untitled #6, indicating a pensive and complex young woman.
Sherman demonstrates that there is more to the way we interpret femininity, than just that women are capable of being sexually objectified. She explores human sexual identity through this feminine lens through her “Sex” series. Her work in this series is ironic, because the closer she comes to unveiling the psychology of human identity, the less she depicts herself, an actual human being. Untitled #263 (Fig. 3) shows “[Sherman’s] doll play [which] allowed her to enter territory that would have remained inaccessible had she restricted herself to the use of her own body… she leaves human beings behind…” (Knafo 153). Sherman’s exploration of femininity has become multifaceted, forcing the viewers to associate themselves with her own exploration of sexuality and identity, purely through fragments of the human body. Her work is no longer for a purely feminist understanding, but for a person who can take feminine stereotypes (passivity, sexiness, helplessness) and patriarchal ways of interpretation (voyeurism and superficial pleasure) from the cultural context and make one realize that their visual interpretation stems from these.
In Untitled #263, male and female genitalia are conjoined with a large bow, combining two different sexual parts of the body into one common form suggesting that one cannot be without the other. Sherman also leads the viewer to watch from a “perverted desire… [and] it is looked at from within by two mannequin heads—one of which hides its gaze from us, the other of which (clearly male) confronts us at the same time” (Jones 47). The smirking male gaze is exposed by showing a head detached from its body insinuating the fragmented view we have of sexuality and identity through our inherent patriarchal lens.
Our perception about ourselves as sexual beings is broken, and Sherman is attempting to restore this in a hard-core and sexually explicit manner. This photograph would make both men and women feel uncomfortable, not just because of the exposed genitalia, but because of the more private characteristics that one’s genitalia might have. This includes a heavy amount of pubic hair, the vagina stuffed with a tampon (a woman’s menstruation period is a generally uncomfortable subject), and the penis-ring (provides pleasure for men). The large-scale size of the work is also highly confrontational to one who would view this in person.
Who are we, according to Cindy Sherman? She has deviated from artificial portraiture, into the complex human mind, and its desires and perverse notions. This is where our true selves lie. She utilizes herself, a feminine body, and seemingly perpetuates stereotypes about women and the superficiality of sex. By doing this, her work introduces “… a new view [which] signifies a feminist revision of femininity, reaching new possibilities of identification beyond (yet within) the dominant ideology” (Kérchy 188). Essentially, she has worked to give a different definition of femininity and sexual identity from within the constraints of a patriarchal culture. In relation to Sherman’s work, Jones argues, “we constitute ourselves as embodied subjects through technologies of representation in relation to other embodied subjects.” We would like to think that these photographs are nothing but pure fantasy and imagination because they have been staged, but we are a common part of this world that Cindy Sherman has devised, and there is no escaping it.
Batchen, Geoffrey. “Phantasm: Digital Imaging and the Death of Photography.” Aperture (1994): 46-51.
Jones, Amelia. “Tracing the Subject with Cindy Sherman.” Cindy Sherman: Retrospective. the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1997. 33-49.
Kérchy, Anna. “The Woman 69 Times: Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills”.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) 9.1 (2003): 181-189.
Knafo, Danielle. “Cindy Sherman:Dressing Up and Make-Believe.” Knafo, Danielle. In Her Own Image: Women’s Self-Representation in Twentieth-Century Art. Cranbury: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp., 2009. 144-156.
Sherman, Cindy. “Statement.” Stiles, Kristine and Peter Selz. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. 2nd Edition. University of California Press, 2012. 926.