“The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told.” – Cindy Sherman

The photographer is the subject

Cindy Sherman is not only a photographer she is her own subject in her entire body of work. She does not take “selfies.” Rather she becomes different characters that she creates by being the wardrobe mistress, prop stylist, hairdresser, makeup artist, the subject in front of the lens and finally, as the photographer behind it.

While studying art, she would often go to parties dressing up as a man. From those roots, she has become characters for her camera. She loves the horror genre. Her photographs are often creepy and disturbing. She might appear as a dark demon of a fairy tale gone wrong or a terrifying clown. She blurs the line between what is surreal, fake or real by being the model in the image.

Cindy Sherman by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Cindy Sherman by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

“Untitled film stills”

Cindy Sherman began work in 1977 on a series of photographs inspired by movies from the 60s and 70s portraying herself as a B-movie actress. She styled the images to look like promotional PR photos. The clichés range from a sex kitten to a housewife to starlet near a secluded beach or a girl awaiting the arrival of her date to a lady with her dog on the side of a highway.

There were 69 heroines presented as 8-by-10 inch glossy black and white photos. She finished them in 1980. Andy Warhol noted, “She’s good enough to be a real actress.”

Sherman recalled the reaction of viewers seeing the series, “Some people have told me they remember the film that one of my images is derived from, but in fact, I had no film in mind at all.”

“Disasters and fairy tales”

in 1985 Sherman again became a model for a new series inspired by her love of horror films. This series shows a huge change in her work. The photographs are dark, disturbing and frightening. There is an evil and wicked tone to the images. Some of them are inspired by centerfolds in men’s magazines. Others came from the AIDs epidemic. And then there were clowns…

“Sex pictures”

This series features photographs of prosthetics and medical devices. Notably, Sherman is not the subject of most of these images. The Guardian article about the show says, “Cindy Sherman’s Sex Pictures are just not sexy enough. Well, they are not sexy at all, nor are they meant to be. The artist has said they are not erotic in the least.”

In an interview in the Journal of Contemporary Art Sherman explains, “I am always surprised when I read or hear somebody say that they are X-rated or pornographic because they are all obvious plastic parts. One review said I used all these sex toys, such as dildos. There weren’t any dildos in the photographs. They were just medical body parts that weren’t made for sex.”


The press release for her retrospective exhibition in 2012 at the Museum of Modern Art sums up Cindy Sherman’s work and contribution to photography:

“Cindy Sherman is widely considered to be one of the most important and influential artists of our time and her work is the unchallenged cornerstone of post-modern photography. Masquerading as a myriad of characters in front of her own camera, Sherman creates invented personas and tableaus that examine the construction of identity, the nature of representation, and the artifice of photography. Her works speak to an increasingly image-saturated world, drawing on the unlimited supply of visual material provided by movies, television, magazines, the Internet, and art history.”

Learn about other influential photographers in On Photography on Photofocus.