clock menu more-arrow no yes
Untitled #70, 1980. © Cindy Sherman
Untitled #70, 1980. © Cindy Sherman
Photos: Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures

Cindy Sherman’s Cinematic Selfies Arrive in LA

The legendary artist is an accidental feminist hero

For the past four decades, one woman has turned the camera on herself in a series of photographs depicting the many states of femininity. Fifties Hollywood starlets, aging society women, a muddied corpse: these are a mere few of artist Cindy Sherman's transformations.


Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

Credited with being one of the greatest artists of our time, Sherman's chameleonic selfie-taking is about to be celebrated in Los Angeles. Eli and Edye Broad, founders of recently opened contemporary art museum, The Broad in Downtown Los Angeles, have long been avid collectors of Sherman's stand-out images. Their private collection currently houses 125 Cindy Sherman pictures (the largest in the world), making The Broad the perfect place to host a major retrospective of her work.

Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life opened on June 11th; almost 20 years since Sherman's last Los Angeles show. (Strange, considering her work confronts Hollywood and its female-directed pressures head on.) Examining ageism and the desire to look perfect along with archaic movie stereotypes, Los Angeles — the home of both fame and misfortune — is surely the birthplace of Sherman's photographs. "Much of her work is influenced by and connected to Hollywood," says Philipp Kaiser, the exhibition's curator who worked closely with Sherman to develop its cinematic theme. "It comments on the limitless stream of visual material available to us today via cinema, television, advertising, the Internet and art itself. I encouraged her to emphasize [the work's] cinematic influences and she agreed it was the perfect theme for an exhibition in Los Angeles."

Cindy Sherman first entered the arts as a painter, although days filled with brushes and watercolors didn't last long. Sherman recalls feeling "like an outcast from the art world" which was (and still is) largely driven by men. Her new artistic direction stemmed from a second year photography lesson at Buffalo's State University College where the class were asked to confront something that made them uncomfortable. Scared of the rumor that a teacher was planning to take the students on a naturist trip, Sherman decided to face her nudity fears. And so the first Cindy Sherman selfie was born.

She has stayed true to her roots and that first photograph ever since: her painting ability led to the painting of her own face with over-the-top makeup and prosthetics, she consistently tackles topics that most of us would rather avoid and the majority of photographs feature her and only her. Unlike a lot of artists, Sherman chooses not to work collaboratively. She plays the role of photographer, model, hairstylist and makeup artist, working with mirrors instead of people to achieve the winning shot.

Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #47, 1979. © Cindy Sherman

Untitled Film Stills, a series mimicking movie publicity shots from the Fifties and Sixties, saw Sherman cement her status in art history. Over the course of three years (1977-1980), she produced 69 black-and-white photos often showing the same young blonde actress in various stereotypical Hitchcock-like roles. Housewife, bombshell and career-focused woman sound familiar? These characters are often the only roles around for actresses with meatier, more complex roles being offered to their male counterparts. Sherman's era of artists - known as the Pictures Generation - were among the first to see through Hollywood's ideals, turning the all too present male gaze into somewhat of a joke. (Fun fact: James Franco recreated the series for his own exhibition, New Film Stills, in 2014.)

A swift rise to fame led to an even more theatrical series. After being commissioned by Artforum magazine in 1981, Sherman decided to riff on the erotic centerfolds typically found in men's magazines. In a series of intimate pictures, we see 12 young women (always played by Sherman) strewn across the bed and floor. Where some are positively seductive, others look frightened and exposed. Centerfolds was a voyeur's heaven but the average person? Well, they were left not knowing how to feel. Sherman's first truly uncomfortable work was however deemed too much with Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy refusing to publish on the grounds they "might be misunderstood" by militant feminists.

"I'm not going to go around espousing theoretical [feminist] bullshit."


Centerfolds may have started a feminist conversation that has continually surrounded Sherman's work but Cindy herself has always dismissed the idea that there is anything political about her art. "I am always surprised at all the things people read into my photos, but it also amuses me. That may be because I have nothing specific in mind when I'm working," she told Wilfried Dickhoff, later adding: "The work is what it is and hopefully it's seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I'm not going to go around espousing theoretical [feminist] bullshit."

Though feminism may not be the specific buzzword at the forefront of Sherman's mind, the way women's bodies are marketed by the media certainly is. And no one does this more than the fashion industry. When asked to work with the likes of Comme des Garçons, Balenciaga, and Marc Jacobs, Sherman turned traditional fashion photography on its head. Desirability was out and deranged anti-fashion types were in with bloodshot eyes and bruises replacing advertising's usual flawless skin and provocative poses.

Sherman continued to fight back, merging her criticism of the patriarchy with a need to overcome the censorship issues that had plagued creative industries. A fascination with all things repulsive led to her infamous Sex Pictures, the first work to leave Sherman firmly behind the camera. Medical dolls simulated a variety of explicit sex acts, imitating scenes from porn and the depths of the male mind. At the Sex Pictures exhibition opening, people were visibly unnerved by the images, demonstrating the still-existent hypocrisy that scenes of an explicit nature work for cinema but are taboo in photography. By depicting the female body as nothing more than a tool to be used and viewed by others, Sherman had successfully shocked the nation.

1985's macabre Fairy Tales series similarly explored the role of women; this time, in fables and legends from the old hag to the damsel in distress. Shot on beds of dirt and moss with Sherman reprising her role as model, the images were again so disturbing that their commissioner, Vanity Fair, refused to let them see the light of day. Sherman, though, had the last laugh with Untitled #153 - featuring an open-eyed female corpse - selling for $2.7 million in 2010. (She later outdid herself when a print from the Centerfolds series auctioned for $3.89 million, the most expensive photograph ever sold at the time.)

Cindy Sherman Untitled #92, 1981. © Cindy Sherman

Then came Sherman's LA-focused work. As she, and the fantasy women she played, grew older, her attention turned to the thing Los Angeles is perhaps most known for: broken dreams. What do aging actresses commonly do when clichéd roles like "female body #1" are no longer offered to them? Go under the knife. Perhaps the needle. Basically any means of altering their appearance and removing the tell-tale signs of age.

Sherman's Head Shots series took a deeper look at this lust for youth. Donning herself in questionable wigs and exaggerated make-up, Sherman "spotlights the plight of actresses who have succumbed to society's infatuation with youth, and as a result, have found themselves no longer in professional demand," writes Paul Moorhouse. Instead of admiration for these accomplished women, we feel pity at their attempts to look younger. "We're all products of what we want to project to the world," Sherman once remarked. It's this need to identify as attractive and worthy of attention that is instantly recognizable to all of us, old or young, Eastern or Western.

"I hope that visitors will come away with an appreciation for Cindy's work and the themes throughout her career such as artificiality, the grotesque and gender. She is one of the most important artists of our time with works that disrupt assumptions about beauty, status, vanity, and art itself," states Kaiser. Perhaps that's why Sherman's work is just as popular now as it was 40 years ago. Especially in our selfie-filled, social media world (described as "vulgar" by Sherman herself) where how we appear online sometimes lies far far away from our real identities.

Kaiser finishes: "Cindy Sherman's work makes explicit that images -€” and perhaps our own selves -€” are produced and constructed." There's no denying that. After all, as Sherman's proven time and time again, the camera always lies.

Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life runs at The Broad, Downtown Los Angeles until October 2nd.