Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait gallery

Q.  When is a selfie not a selfie?

A.   When it features Cindy Sherman.

Cindy Sherman’s work has a simple concept at its heart – she takes photographs of herself. In fact she has been taking self-portraits since long before the term ‘selfie’ entered common usage. But she does not take selfies in the generally accepted sense of the word – Sherman adopts a persona but leaves the viewer to decode what the image is all about. Her works have no title that would assist in interpreting her images, although most belong to a series that is titles, e.g. History Portraits, Fashion or Film Stills.

Her conceptual approach is alarmingly simple -she constructs (or chooses) a suitable backdrop, dresses up in clothes and changes her appearance with make-up, wigs and (more recently) prosthetics. It was fascinating to see a copy of Sherman’s notebook where she had written how she was going to achieve the portrait she wanted. Although the concept is simple – a huge amount of detail goes into constructing the scene just as she wants it.

The images I admired the most were in the Film Stills series, produced between 1977-80. Scores of relatively small portraits filled one of the gallery rooms – each a distinct scene from a film that you think you have seen. They are not copies of scenes from any particular film, rather generic scenes that remind you of something you had seen.

In this way the viewer is invited to bring their own interpretation to the scene – what’s happening here, what is she doing, what might happen next? Sherman has the ability to construct these scenes in both simple and complicated settings. For example #48

Seen from the rear, Sherman stands alone with her back to the camera and with just a suitcase as a prop. But the dramatically lit figure and dark brooding background convey a sense of danger. A simple scene where the questions and suspense are made by the setting and lighting.

 

 

By comparison # 14

This is a highly complex setup, where the expression on Sherman’s face, reflection in the mirror, the glass of wine on the table, jacket on the chair, portrait on the sideboard all offer pointers for interpretation as to what the scene is all about.

 

Sherman doesn’t give answers in these portraits, she asks questions of the viewer who bring their own prejudices and stereotypes as they decipher the scene. I could have spent most of my time at the exhibition in the room containing the Film Stills series, investigating the scenes and considering the ingenuity of the concept.

In some ways I found that the rest of the exhibition suffered from following on from this series. Sherman’s later work embraced colour and were printed on a much bigger scale but, to me, seemed less intriguing than the Film Stills series. I admired the Centrefold series as well as the Fashion images. The fashion series especially were, literally, larger than life, and lost the intimacy that was generated in the Film Stills.

It is interesting to consider Sherman’s influence on photography. Gerry Badger writes

“Sherman’s work as a whole has been a crucial component of the feminist influence upon women’s photography, yet it seems clear that she came to it by examining personal concerns – a love of movies, a penchant for dressing-up. She claims that she had never heard of the ‘male gaze’ theory when she began Untitled Film Stills. Yet, through this exploration of the personal, she instinctively created a body of work of work that touched upon wider issues concerning the representation of women”.

Badger, G. (2014) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille.