Cindy Sherman’s current show A Play of Selves again returns to her student work of the mid 70s, where her devotion to the studio-based self-portrait in sundry roles is already firmly in place. The show marks time in several ways, is no doubt a chance to take stock for the prolific Sherman, now 52, and underlines key features to her project.
Sherman’s use of the self-portrait as a foil to social stereotypes has influenced a generation of younger, mostly female photographers although few restrict their practice to her studio-based tableaux and fewer still are drawn to her use of deliberately theatrical or artificial props. The advent of digital technology has inspired other challenges to portraits and the Photoshop additions of a Yasumasa Morimura or the morphing ambiguities of a Nancy Burson may seem to render Sherman’s approach quaint or antique.
But this is to miss the way Sherman has stressed setting and accessories, the influence of not only hair style, make-up and wardrobe in combination with angle, lens, film stock, light, time of day, season and even era, but also the ways these factors shape the use of photography, influence the look of a face and frame. Indeed, later work resorts to more intrusive or artificial props to underline their presence, deepen the division between constituent elements before the lens and the overall recognition of person and picture. For no matter how corny or crummy Sherman’s masks and body substitutes, they nevertheless cast her face and figure in new and real ways, portray some novel aspect to person and role, grant photography a wider pictorial domain.
Sherman’s contribution lies as much with this revision of ‘photographic’ resources as themes of self and sexual stereotype, is hardly diminished by later technology. Her attention to context, to décor and decoration in matters of personal presentation is unquestionably feminine, inevitably embraces photography in private and public spheres and is only amplified in the current world. Whether it is also feminist, a frontier, fully or fairly Freudian, is left to others. Here it is enough to trace the development of the style.
The importance of theme and variation to her work means that individual works rarely carry the full impact – one needs variation to be impressed by the theme, whether as self-portrait or stereotype – so works proceed in series. The first to gain great attention was Untitled Film Stills (1978-80). The choice of this format has a complex origin, partly reflecting Sherman’s interest in painting, partly the trend in 70s photography to recycle or refer to standard publication norms. But given the diffusion her approach brings to self-portraiture, not surprisingly, most of the works do not look or feel much like film stills, either lacking the horizontal format of frame enlargements or production records, standard film lighting, (either studio or location) or the kind of action or narrative that usually suggests a feature film, not to mention other figures. In fact many works could as easily belong to later series such as Gleams and Reflections (1980) Centrefolds (1981) or ]Fashion (1983-4) or indeed they to Untitled Film Stills.
Where Untitled Film Stills is distinctive is in the greater use of architecture and exteriors. The figure tends to be full length or viewed from a distance, hairstyle and costume often summon a period (50s-60s). More accurately, the series could be described as publicity stills, for a celebrity from film or elsewhere. She is pictured always at the centre of a comfortable, yet strangely empty world. Subsequent series narrow the focus, perhaps aware of the problem. Sherman then sets a single mood, of avoiding eye contact with the lens, of introversion and withdrawal, or of frank and wry confrontation, in chic costume. But again, neither conforms very much with centrefolds or fashion shots in the usual sense.
Other series introduce additional figures (feel more like film stills for it) but it is the move to greater artifice that ultimately shares the pictures with Sherman. Later series such as Clowns (2004) arrive at one-dimensional roles, surrender all to artifice. A return to A Play of Selves reminds us not only of all the roles that Sherman can play with her self, but that she insists on playing them for us.