Research notes – Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) photographs herself under a series of situations and guises. The images do not feel autobiographical in any sense, but her involvement is primarily as a prop or as an actor at the service of an idea, a script. In the introduction to the book “The Complete Untitled Film Stills” (1), Sherman makes the point that she was a private person (2) and goes on to mention that “…I wanted to go on making little narratives, but without using other people. I wanted to work alone; I wanted a controlled situation in my studio. What I didn’t know was exactly how it was all going to come together” (2). At a later point, she talks about her experience when moving to NY in the late 70s, and saying that she did not want to go out and that getting a job as a receptionist at Artists Space ”…forced me to get out and about, to stop being so neurotic” (3). It seems to be me that Sherman use of her own body is merely a consequence of her (seemingly recluse) personality, rather than to satisfy any narcissistic tendencies. Further confirmation of this seems to be offered later in the text, where Sherman relates that she would often dress up in custom and attend public events dressed in character nothing that “…it was great to feel incognito at an event where I felt awkward” (4), while separately remarking that her images were not “…related to things happening in my personal life (5).

The series of Film Stills includes Sherman posing both indoors and outdoors. In most of the images, Sherman is alone, but one gets the impression that somebody else is at the scene. In many cases it is a third-party likely interacting with her (see for instance Untitled #84 (link)), while in others one gets the impression that somebody is just stalking the main character (and she notices back, like in Untitled # 5 (link), or Untitled # 65 (link), where you can actually see the silhouette of the stalker at the top of the staircase) or voyeuristically following her steps from afar (like in Untitled # 83 (link)). The images are all still, of course, but there is a kind of action embedded in them. Something has happened or is about to happen in these images, and I believe that they fit exactly the title of the series, because they look like an instant taken from a movie.

Sherman took these images without the aid of any sophisticated equipment or crew. Many of the images were and remote trigger setup was not possible were taken by family or friends (Untitled #82 (link) was taken by her father and subsequently cropped to eliminate his shadow on the right hand side of the original image). In the article, Sherman indicated that she made notes of places and locations where she could take future shots. However, locations were not important by themselves, as she was looking for a generic look: “I wasn’t trying to make photographs of Manhattan; I wanted the pictures to be mysterious, and to look like unidentifiable locations. So I used types of building that looked as if they could be anywhere…” (6).

Sherman was trying to play roles in the Film Stills series, but in these images as well as many other from her work up to about the mid-1980s, she did not appear to be heavily in disguise and we could still somehow recognise her. Starting from the series “Fairy Tales”, Sherman started to make use of heavy make-up and prosthetics to transform her persona into something else. She makes use of strong lighting to increase contrast and create an atmosphere of despair and terror. The images are impactful and create a lasting impression (see for instance Untitled #146 (link), with Sherman’s macabre, unforgettable grimace), in keeping with the Film Stills series, there is this lingering sensation that something has happened or is about to happen, creating an almost cinematic experience. While in Film Stills that experience had undertones of conventional drama or mystery, in Fairy Tales the themes are definitely denser, closer to death and horror, and definitely departing from the conventional and entering into a world that may exist but we do not want to imagine. This process is aided by the addition of colour – the Film Stills images were done in black and white – which accentuates the grimness of the images while also anchoring it in reality (see for instance Untitled #153 (link)). This descent into darkness continued with the “Disasters” and “Civil War” series , where Sherman continued to make use of prosthetics, detritus, ragged clothes and other props to emphasize the feelings of desolation and death (see for instance Untitled # 243 (link)) that were starting to come through in “Fairy Tales”. In these two series, Sherman is less and less in the frame, and in many cases she is not there at all, with her presence just being hinted by the use of props (see for instance Untitled # 168 (link)).

While Sherman’s photographs have an undeniable aesthetic appeal, they are also filled with strong social and moral connotations. Sherman was commissioned in the early 1980’s by a NY boutique to produce photographs of herself wearing designer clothes. The photographs Sherman took for this showed characters that appeared to be deeply flawed, neurotic or ugly, in sharp contrast with the idealised conventions of fashion photography, but bringing us closer to what the real world actually is. In Untitled #132 (link), Sherman’s character appears unmade-up, with an unnaturally aged face and sports a beer can and a cigarette under unflattering warm-toned harsh light, not what one would normally expect from somebody modelling an expensive dress; while the lost look and dishevelled appearance of Sherman in Untitled # 137 (link) gives the impression of insanity looming.

Her later work with prosthetics and props is also heavily charged with direct connotations. In her series “Broken Dolls”, produced in the late 1990s, Sherman deforms, mutilates and cuts popular toy dolls and places them in a sexually charged context (see for instance Untitled # 332 (link) and Untitled # 345 (link)). The transformation of something seemingly innocent, that would normally evoke pleasant childhood memories, in scenes that border in the grotesque is a shocking reminder of the realities of a world full of exploitation and abuse of the most vulnerable, something that happens every day, whether we notice or otherwise. It is perhaps because these images were so strong on their own that Sherman decided to print them in black and white, this somewhat mitigating their impact.



(1) Sherman, C., 2003. Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills. The Museum of Modern Art.

(2) idem, p 5

(3) Idem, p 7

(4) Idem, p 11

(5) Idem, p 8

(6) Idem, p 12




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