This article is copyright of Katherine Williams © July 2003, photos courtesy of the Serpentine Gallery and copyright Cindy Sherman © 1976-2003 and must not be reproduced without written permission of the author or the editors at UKlandscape.  However please feel free to print the article for your later personal reading pleasure.

An Introduction to Cindy Sherman and the Issue of Gender
Katherine Williams BA History of Modern Art  University of Manchester

This feature intends to provide an introduction to Sherman’s photography.  Show how she developed her ideas and highlighting her key groups of works (series” as she has titled them).

Cindy Sherman and the issue of gender are synonymous. It is the core
subject of discussion in the exploration of her photographs, since the
unveiling of her Untitled Film Series (1977-1980) in 1980.

Sherman has always, had a keen interest in role-play, dressing up and the media.  She was born in 1954 in New Jersey, and grew up within a changing social environment.  Television became integrated into everyday living and brought new and influential images to the young Sherman.  She began experimenting with her own appearance, playing around with how she could make herself look, and the kinds of personalities or characters this could conger.  This then filtered into and dominated her photographic work, from when she trained at Art College to present day.  In order to gain a greater awareness of Sherman’s photography an understanding of the social situation of the time when her work came into the public arena is necessary.  Through this one can grasp the bearing that this had on her work and the way in which it was viewed.  The development of the feminist movement of the seventies had recently occurred and this created the platform for her art, making her photography such a success. This was a period when women wanted to be seen as more than objects of sexual desire, or purely motherly figures.  They wanted to reinstate themselves in the modern society, and direct the male vision away from their previous stereotypes.  Much of this feeling was expressed through performance art.  Sherman uses this medium as she is the artist and protagonist of all her photographs yet in each she adopts a different guise.  It is her aim to show the different personas that women have opted for, or even adopted, over the recent years.

The recent exhibition of Sherman’s work shown at the Serpentine and Gloucester Road tube station includes many aspects of her career.  However when looking at the show as a whole the issue of gender and identity is prevalent throughout.  As mentioned earlier, the Untitled film Stills are the first photographs to have an impact with the discussion of female identity.  They consist of 69 different prints.  They are the entire same format, 8x10",
and are photographed in black and white. The size and use of the monochrome were both intended to mirror the original film stills produced in the fifties.  In each of the pieces, Sherman adopts a character that she believes is stereotypical of the roles that women played within our popular culture and media.  These images relate back to the fifties and the influence that Sherman’s childhood has played on them.  In 1983 Sherman, in an interview with Thom Thompson, stated that in the conception of the series she was conscious of, "...thinking, of general stereotypes..." Sherman elaborates that she wished to portray “the most artificial looking kinds of woman”.  She wanted to explore the most “unreal” female figures.  Women that wore lots of make-up with big hair and awkward clothing such as high heels, shapely bras and short skirts.  In Untitled Film Still #10 1978, Sherman takes on a seemingly vulnerable role, asserting the act of femininity.

In order for Sherman to achieve these “characters” she must assume a persona.  “Persona” originates from the theatre in classical times.  Lynn Gumpert states, "... the word "persona" designated both the actor and the masks worn in different roles.  It was by speaking through the mask that the actor assumed the role".  Sherman is critiquing the women that she achieves.  By taking on various roles through costume and make-up (which acts like a mask), her audience can presuppose the woman portrayed.  The object, Sherman, becomes a believable subject.  In fact so believable are Sherman’s characters that many feel that they have seen the image before.  Yet none of them are copies, all are unique creations of the artist.

Sherman developed and strengthened her vision of female representation through the History Portraits of 1989.  She went back to examining the Old Masters and the ways in which they worked and how they portrayed the female form.  Sherman is still the main feature of each photograph, although she does use elaborate make-up, fake noses and breasts and thus her own identify becomes more invisible.  The photographs are extremely humorous and highlight the difference between the perception of women then, to present day.  In Untitled #225 1990, inspired by Botticelli’s Portrait of a Woman 1490, Sherman mocks the composition, creating a humorous assessment of the original.

The seemingly decadent woman (Sherman) with her blonde locks and high society gowns has an exposed breast, which squirts milk.  Her demure expression makes this gesture all the more provocative.  The woman and her nudity no longer act like a vision of beauty, which would have been Botticelli’s original intention.

Moving on from these The Older woman series 2002 takes on a different stance to gender.  Sherman, having aged herself, wanted to bring to light the myth of eternal youth.  Her Hollywood inspired characters, all women trying their hardest to hide the effects of ageing, show the constant values that our superficial society puts upon women.  That each must strive for outer beauty.  Sherman’s visions show these women as almost desperate and freakish.

They relate back to Sherman’s original argument prevalent within the Film Stills of women acting the role of femininity through adopting a persona or mask.  All of which is an attempt to surrender to the male gaze.

Sherman’s formula has transcended over 25 years, with the fundamental elements remaining.  She is always the main focus of the piece and she continues to analyse the subject of gender in particular femininity.  Her photography intends to show the images of the stereotypical woman, she then goes on to mock the vision of the female body from the past and continues to reject the concept of beauty and youth.


Copyright Katherine Williams ©  13th July 2003