Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman is a hallmark of 20th-century art. Since the 1970s ​​she’s taken pictures of herself as different ‘types’ of people from American culture and beyond. In this Artist’s Artist, we look at how the representation of women in popular culture shaped her history-making career.

4 min read

Early life: How to be the perfect American woman

American artist Cindy Sherman was born in 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. She was the youngest of five children which led her to question her identity from an early age. "It was kind of like me arriving to this perfectly formed family," she said in a 1995 interview featured in the 2019 BBC documentary Cindy Sherman #untitled.

I grew up thinking I had a perfectly normal, relatively happy childhood. But, of course, being in therapy, you kind of learn that it wasn't exactly as happy as you thought.

Growing up in 1950s post-war America, Cindy was part of the first generation to watch television on a daily basis. Women in adverts, TV shows and Hollywood films were all role models for young girls: they were the how-to guide on beauty, desire and sexuality – the blueprint for the perfect American woman.

From a young age, Cindy found these expectations tiring and frustrating. But she still found herself adhering to them, usually spending at least an hour every day on her makeup even when she was ill. At the same time, Cindy subverted these beauty ideals from a young age by dressing up and taking on new personas.

The reason I turned this into an art practice was because I would get dressed up whenever I was depressed or confused about things and turn into somebody else.

Untitled Film Stills #27, 1979

Untitled Film Still #43, 1979

Untitled Film Still #52, 1979

Career: the rise to international art stardom

In 1972 Cindy went to study at Buffalo State University, where she first majored in painting and then switched to photography. While studying conceptual photography she began to take pictures of herself. With support from her tutors, who championed conceptual art, Cindy realised that the idea was the most critical part of the artwork. Her compelling portraits took her photography class by storm, and soon enough, she became a local art school star.

Shortly after finishing her studies in Buffalo, Cindy moved to New York and started work on one of her most well-known series to date: Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980). For the series, Cindy acted out fantasy Hollywood scenes with her archetypal movie-star female characters centre stage. There are a total of 70 8×10-inch black and white photographs in the series.

The story goes that the series was inspired by a visit to fellow artist David Salle’s studio in the 1970s. Cindy explains it in a 2008 interview with New York Magazine:

When I moved to New York in the summer of ’77, I was trying to think of a new way to take pictures and tell a story. David Salle had been working at some sleazy magazine company where they had lots of shots of half-clothed women around for those photo-novellas, like a cartoon but with photos. Slightly racy. It got me thinking, this cheap, throwaway image – if you just look at one, you make up your own story.

Clowns, pigs and fake-tan Moms: the uncanny valley of Cindy Sherman’s art

Throughout her career the foundation of Cindy Sherman’s process has stayed the same: she dresses up and takes pictures of herself. Repeating this singular concept, however, offers her an endless expanse of themes, characters and aesthetics. Cindy often works in series, creating a collection of photographs on a similar theme, idea or persona. These have ranged from collections in the 1980s and 90s like disasters (1986-89), sex pictures (1992), centerfold (1981) and history portraits (1988-90) to later works in the 2000s like her clown series (2003-04) and society portraits (2008).

Untitled #414, 2003

Cindy’s artwork is always familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. The way she plays with visual formats and tropes in popular culture (like fashion photography, horror films, soft porn and family portraits) is what makes her work so enticing. There’s always something wrong, something ugly or unknown, underneath the initial presentation. The uncanny valley is always there. Human, but not quite. Womanly, but not quite.

Digital artworks: Beauty filters made grotesquely alluring

In recent years Cindy Sherman has embraced social media, apps and beauty tools in her art, particularly on Instagram. While most people use these tools to make themselves more ‘pretty’ and ‘attractive,’ Cindy uses them to the opposite effect. The joke is that her work is far more beautiful and interesting than most online content and selfie culture. The so-called ‘ugliness’ of her work is what makes her images so enticing and invigorating. These recent works are some of her most pertinent and visually avant-garde. Through her artistic evolution into the digital age, her surreal and uncanny portraits lay bare the raw reality of how we manufacture the very idea of ourselves.

Cindy Sherman: Marc Jacobs Campaign

In January 2024 Cindy Sherman launched a collaboration with Marc Jacobs on her Instagram to celebrate the brand’s 40th anniversary. The fashion campaign speaks to a history of Cindy’s work that riffs off fashion photography. Over the decades, her work has simultaneously celebrated the expression of clothes and critiqued the oppression of beauty standards. Cindy’s contribution to the Marc Jacobs campaign challenges ageism, particularly against women, in a fun, funny and visually exciting way.

Cindy Sherman & Marc Jacobs, Spring/Summer 2024

Legacy: Changing the game for women in art

What’s amazing about Cindy’s work is that she has always been ahead of her time. Back in the 1970s, she was shining a light on the manipulation and performativity of identity long before social media. So, the core truth of her work has only become ever more pertinent over time. As we live our everyday lives under the god-like gaze of the selfie, Cindy vivaciously points out just how wild, disturbing and just plain hilarious our reality has become.



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