National Portrait Gallery, June-September 2019
28th June 2019
Articles - Observer
Another OCA student outing, led by the peerless Jayne Taylor with 20 students booked.
The prosaic introductory lecture by [insert name 1] answered one vital query, how did she do it? The answer is, mostly, alone and with a long airblown cable release, but in the case of the outdoors and tricky shots, at first, with her then partner Michel Auder on the shutter.
1 [name] opened the lecture by stating that these are "not selfies", they are "masquerades". This was not challenged at the time as, perhaps, no-one was sure of the lecture format. The statement was questioned in the later debriefing at StMitF Crypt.
Sherman's relationship with the shutter release cable was demonstrated, perhaps symbolically, by an early student project, called in the show (but not necessarily by the artist), Air Shutter Release Fashions, 1975. The first image in the set shows the release (fig. A2) , followed by images of the subject being entwined in the device (fig. A3) . A fellow student noted later that this is the single instance of Sherman nudity in the show.
Another early series, created in 1976 and reformatted in 2000 was Untitled (Murder Mystery People) 1976 / 2000. Here, Sherman portrays the characters in a spoof 1940s who-did-it play. The use of the remote release is clear in every shot and emphasised in the detail fig. B5
The highlight of her career was the early Untitled Film Stills 1977-80 (shown below) which contains a series of memorable images, nicely designed, composed and lit. In subsequent years, she sometimes seemed to lose her sense of direction but repeatedly returned to dressing up. It's a gimmick, but a good one and has sustained her 40-year career.
A strong influence is probably Hitchcock and I thought a detected a recurring character who resembled a Hitchcock heroine: she definitely appears three or four times, but then I scoured the show for further sightings and took my theory further than it deserved.
Figs. C5 and C6 are stretching it but there is a similarity in C1-C4, mostly the hair but also the mood and vulnerability of the pose that evoke Hitchcock.
Her early pieces are small. Her later work suffers from the common malaise of Big Prints to make it Gallery Art. It was inevitable that she should switch to colour given the theatricality of her work.
The show was organised chronologically into these categories (some are my labels, some the show's):
Early Works - Untitled Film Stills - 1980s - 1990s - 2000+
This covered Sherman's time as a student and other series prior to the Untitled Film Stills. There were three short films, two of which (Unhappy Hooker and ?sad person?) would have been better forgotten and one which was a pretty neat idea (Sherman as one of those cut out dolls and clothes with shoulder tabs that used to be a mainstay of my sister's comics in the 1950s) but poorly executed.
The photographic series, some of which have been mentioned above, provided interesting foretastes, preludes and pathways to UFS.
Illustrations of Untitled (Line-Up), 1977-2011 and Untitled #479, 1975 (figs. 9 and 10) were not taken.
Pages from a Cindy Book is a collection of family snapshots assembled by the artist first of all when she was ten and then added to for a decade. At some point, Sherman circled herself in thick green felt tip and wrote "That's me, " under each one. It is interesting to see the artist growing up in real life. Reviews of the show have examined the significance of the punctuation and uniformity of the labels. Untitled A-E, 1975 is a selection of early experiments, headshots demonstrating changes of appearance. The other two series, Air Shutter Release Fashions and Murder Mystery People have been mentioned above.
Untitled Film Stills, 1977-80
These gems are the pinnacle of Sherman's creativity in conceptual terms and of her technical achievement. The rest of her career seems derivative, by comparison: fortunately, it derives from her own work and is thus generally lauded.
2 Most of Sherman's work is labelled "untitled" and given numbers. Here it is perhaps understandable as the point of the series is to allude to non-existent films, leaving the viewer to bring their own conceptions to each piece. For the rest of her wok, though, it is, to my mind, an unnecessary conceit. Figs. 6 and 7 are cards at the show giving a "map" of the numbers by wall location and thumbnail.
Here are a few favourites from the series.
#02 would have been almost impossible to shoot single-handed. As will be seen throughout this subset, so much is considered and captured in these shots, the look on Sherman's face, the framing in the mirror, the minimal amount of clutter in the bathroom. It is interesting that only about 50% of the shot is doing the work — a large section on the right and some on the left is just blank, forcing attention on the detail of the central subject.
#03 I cannot look at this without thinking of the Freddie Mercury character in Queen's I Want to Break Free video (youtube link). This is one of the few images in the series where the head is not shown in full. Again the domestic objects, some in focus, others not, seem to have been carefully considered.
Untitled Film Stills #13,
#13 This is one of the most often shown of the series. Sherman portrays another character who could be in a Hitchcock film and this is reinforced by her being in the Art and Cinema section of a library or bookshop. The book she is stretching for, while looking in the opposite direction is titled The ...al Dialogue, but I have not been able to identify the actual volume.
The point of Sherman's attention to detail might be that it allows and encourages the freedom of the viewer to speculate on the "meaning" of the contents and bring their own preconceptions into the equation.
#21 and #23 appear to be in the same costume and also #22 (three from the end in the last section). This is one of only two repetitions that I have noticed. #21 appears to have used artificial lighting on Sherman and is a good example of the artist's technical expertise in this area.
#42 is something of an exception in the series with Sherman a distant detail and the subject, for once, being architectural. I know little of American architecture and associate this type of building with Spaghetti Westerns.
#55 is another prime example of Sherman's lighting skills and one of the most noir of the series. There is a similar image towards the end of the second wall, #54. This is the only pair obviously taken at night.
#63 is, perhaps, the most timeless photograph in the series and could have been taken at any time from the 1960s to the current day.
Sherman is quoted Sean O’Hagan's Observer review of the exhibition (2019) as saying,
I’m not personally articulate … I don’t even like giving lectures, and I certainly couldn’t debate with anyone, but I have strong personal stances. I couldn’t be an advocate but, through my work, I can be outspoken. What’s also important, though, is that the work is always ambiguous, that it lends itself to interpretation. I’m not a message artist.Cindy Sherman, quoted by Sean O’Hagan, Observer review, 8th Jun2, 2019
For the remainder, I usually took a snap of one of most series: sometimes a few, sometimes none.
I'm not entirely sure which set some of the shots belong to, for example fig. H1, but if one cannot tell subjectively whether it fits into then arguably it doesn't matter.
The Rear Screen Projections series was a logical and practical progression from the smaller scale monochrome works, with artificial backgrounds enabling Sherman to work alone in a studio, using colour (which was by then becoming accepted in art photography) and producing large prints (a requirement for gallery art). Apart from the delivery format, the subject and approach is not radically dissimilar from Untitled Film Stills.
Thereafter, wedded, it would seem, irretrievably to disguised self portraiture, Sherman resorts to progressively more absurd costumes. Having achieved celebrity status, she traded on this to, for example, collude with couture clothing companies to ridicule their products.
One room of the exhibition used life-size images on all four walls and some artefacts to replicate Sherman's working studio (see right)
By the 1990s Sherman seemed to be running out of ideas and resorted to constructing grotesque figures out of mechanical sex products and prosthetic aids. NPG describe this as a "critique of imagery found in modern society … [which] … debunk[s] the conventions of pornography". The Sex Pictures room in the exhibition was a disturbing experience and no-one seemed to linger long in there: this is, presumably, what prompted the warning of "adult content" on the ticket. H2 was taken as the least disquieting exhibit in the room.
Sherman is a gifted and technically accomplished photographer who had a winning idea while a student, implemented that idea with a tour de force series, Untitled Film Stills which gained her international recognition, and has traded on that idea, with occasional flashes of brilliance, but more frequent signs of desperation for a whole career. She remains a good photographer, whose one idea, arguably, made her a great photographer.
O'Hagan, S. (2019) Cindy Sherman: ‘I enjoy doing the really difficult things that people can’t buy’. The Observer [online]. 8 Jun [Accessed 7 July 2019]