Cindy Sherman revealed the enormous potential of narrative photography, and for that she is recognised as one of the most influential artists in the contemporary art world. Her 2012 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York looked back at 35 years of provocative self-portraits.
Sherman’s retrospective at MoMA comprised 170 photographs, with some prints measuring more than 1.8m tall. Most works were grouped according to the artist’s individual series but some of the galleries were organised thematically around common threads such as cinema and performance, horror and the grotesque, myth, carnival, fairy tales, and gender and class identity.
Sherman started photographing herself in 1977 after studying art at Buffalo State College. Drawing from a large pool of familiar images, she successively assumed the roles of housewife, clown, career woman, siren, or blond bombshell to reflect on the artificial nature of representation. Her work comments on the way contemporary identities are manufactured though the photographic image and sits ambiguously between a parody and a critique.
Sherman maintains that her photographs are not self-portraits since they reveal nothing about her personality or life but rather depict common archetypes from the screen or classic painting. The fact that they are all untitled provides viewers with still further space for interpretation.
The photographer first captured the public’s imagination with her ground breaking 1970s work, Untitled Film Stills, a series of portraits resembling scenes from movies. Quite surprisingly, neither the characters nor the tableaus come from actual films. Viewers immediately engaged with the photographs as the artist subtly played with complex representations that resonate deeply in our visual culture.
Her more recent works include a 2003 series of tragic clowns and the 2008 society women photographs –botoxed women whose grotesque waxy faces cannot conceal the damages caused by wealth and age. You may or may not recognise yourself in these ageing socialites, but Cindy Sherman’s multiple visages certainly fascinate and perhaps cause viewers question their own yearnings for masquerade.
Watch a video of Cindy Sherman’s 2012 exhibition at the MoMA: