Cindy Sherman, Untitled #153, 1985

-Joan Bowlen

The portrait has consistently been a source of political, social, and emotional power throughout art history.  The towering trompe d’oils that littered halls and council rooms of the social elite perpetuated a sense of the sitter’s wealth at being able to commission such a display of material wealth and the generational collection of such portraits built up a sense of destinied power and entitlement which could literally hang above the heads of both servants and rival elitists.  Until the introduction of photography and the refracted light’s ability to capture minute details, the primary concern of the portrait had not rested on the idea of a true representation.  Rather the portraitist focused on the rendering of the sitter’s features in such a way that a specific emotive response (usually stipulated by the patron) was achieved upon viewing.  Props such as bejeweled weaponry and fine drapery and cloth were incorporated into portraits to convey very specific messages of privilege. Even after the introduction of photography, portraits still attempted to engender this sense of a directed image through costumes and props incorporated into the photographic sitting.  Such a scripted reading was generally thwarted by the long exposure times and discomfort of the sitters.  These limitations of facial musculature and camera optics frequently worked against creating any kind of emotive sense except for stoic discomfort.

As the camera’s physical limitations were refined and expanded, portraiture began to incorporate photography’s ability to capture nearly instantaneous images.  The concept of the snapshot began to dominate the media, family memorabilia, and artistic design.  A prime example of this utilization of the snapshot can be seen in the Great Depression governmental formation of the photographic branch of the Farm Security Administration.  The sole purpose of this branch of the department was to go out among the American regions and document the way in which people were being affected by the economic and natural disasters and many photographers found that the most poignant visual signs of poverty and suffering developed in the unposed moments of the Great Depression.  Images that became iconic representations of the period were ones like Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother presented portraits that were nameless and a development of the surrounding environment.  There is still a sense of artistic framing and composition in the photograph, but the sense is of an image taken during a random moment of time in which Dorthea Lange happened upon this scene of a mother and children stranded on a dusty roadside.

Dorthea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

The collection of instantaneous images became the modernist means of presenting the world and all of its objects as they exist in reality, that only by catching the world off-guard could a photographer hope to display true inner meaning.  The concept of sitting and posing allowed the subject to retreat behind a veneer of socially constructed ideals of happiness, contentment, intellectual prowess, and a multitude of preconceived emotions.  Photographers such as Walker Evans with his New York Subway portraits began to surreptitiously photograph images of strangers in the hopes of capturing them in a moment of unguarded honesty.  This snapshot documentary of the nameless urban crowd continued with the 1950s and 60s work of Gary Winogard and Diane Arbus, though their methods of obtaining their subjects became more aggressive and direct than Evan’s hidden camera.  Through their use of harsh lighting and flashbulbs, these street photographers were able to traverse the darker, seedier sides of portraiture.  Gary Winogard used his transistor radio to appear at crime scenes sometimes before the police even arrived; Diane Arbus used her fascination and love of strange, deformed, and ostrachized members of society to lead her into the alley street freakshows and nudist camps of the world.

Gary Winogrand, American Legion Convention, 1964                                 Diane Arbus, Child With Toy Hand Granade in Central Park, 1962

While Arbus and Winogrand were running around the darkened alleys of New York City, other artists such as Andy Warhol were taking photography in a new direction, turning from the camera’s facility as documentor to the medium’s more impressionistic capabilities.  Warhol developed an entire aesthetic around the photographic silkscreening process in which he created hundreds of reproductions of photographic portraits, each reprint subject to slight incongruities in the image overlay and color application.  Such differences can be corrected for, but Warhol relished the incongruities, allowing the work to exude film’s inherent reproducability and yet, conversely, the inability to present a perfectly encompassing image of a person.  Warhol underlined the commerciality of the portrait image, how it provided the mass media with iconic depictions which were born of the desire for image marketability rather than the depiction of the subject’s inner psychology.  These portraits are easily recognizable as the faces of national celebraties seen in the continual barage of media coverage, faces that are at once singular and yet united in their sameness.

Andy Warhol, 25 Marilyns, 1962             Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1986

Cindy Sherman continues this idea of the portrait as a marketable commodity, but rather than utilize the direct recognition of the media’s photography, Sherman creates her own allegory of the iconic image.  Her Untitled portraits present a direct opposite to Warhol: rather than using an actual image of the celebrity’s face and subjecting it to the flattening and 2-dimensional sense of the silk screening process, Sherman underlines the fullness her 3-dimensional self within the flatness of an imagined space.  Instead of Warhol’s deliberate simplification of the complex image, Sherman makes complex the simplifications.

In work such as #153 (seen at the begining of this essay), her photography places her body as the centerpiece of the image, drawing ties to commercial magazine layouts.  In previous work, Sherman had made this tie to the magazine image even more explicit through the incorporation of a horizontal composition directly reminiscent of Playboy centerfolds, but in this work, she has made a conscious step away from the blatent referencing of media geared directly for the male gaze.  In this photograph and others in the Distaster series, Sherman looks to connect her portraits of herself with those of the Western fairy tales and mythologies.  Her faces have now become the grusome witches and enchanted bodies of the childhood realm; instead of referencing Playboy, Sherman has shifted to the Brothers Grimm.

This shift clearly demarcates her portraiture’s continual departure from the documentary style utilized by Evans, Arbus, Winogrand, and Frank.  Though her photographs are always nameless just as these other artists’ subjects were, the potency of her work stems from the fact that the viewer realize that all of these characters are Cindy Sherman in varying guises.  The compositions of Untitled Film Stills created many architectural spaces that resonated with many of these earlier photographers and their favored photographic sights.  Now with Disasters, Sherman has removed all trace of the urban street or the slightly seedy suburban home and created ambiguous landscapes of color.  #153 relies on the explosion of color and the interplay between the silvery translucance of her face and the textured earth that surrounds her and extends up her neck to create a sense of a surreal space.  This surreal environment adds to the entire photograph’s enigmatic quality; what has happened to this woman? Is she dead or in a spell induced stuper?  Where is she lying and where does the illuminating bright light come from?  This photograph is a completely fabricated narrative in and of itself rather than a snapshot appropriated from life and/or the flim noir of the 1950s.  Diane Arbus might have hoped to some day come across the woman of #153 and the other freakish women of Disasters, but Cindy Sherman took the initiative to sculpt her own portraits of literary freaks and mutilations.

The Disasters series draws Sherman’s work back to the painterly ideal of portraiture that had existed before the 20th century photographic conception of truth.  Her work has become an articulation of her own visualition of her image rather than looking to the camera to expose the inner truth of her body.  She manipulates the camera rather than allowing the camera to manipulate her vision.  Cindy Sherman demonstrates that there are multiple characters contained within one body and the camera is incapable of capturing all of these subtilties, so it is up to the artist to harness the camera lens to reveal the characters of the artist’s choosing.  There is no inherent truth within the camera, only the intention of the eye and the hand which controls the shutter.


4 Comments so far

  1. Elizabeth on October 28, 2008 3:42 pm

    Wow – no login required so I am able to post a reponse. I liked this essay a lot: it was thoughtfully constructed and each point was backed up with a concrete example. I especially liked the photographic portraiture history lession.

  2. Peter Zimmerman and Joan Bowlen on November 3, 2008 6:04 pm

    While I can see the placement of identity as forefront and vital to the dialogue not only about Cindy Sherman but also that of portraiture in general, is there, potentially, something more that allows for the “Disasters” photographs to be seen as outside of the history of portraiture?

    I feel that Untitled #153 might be the exception to the rule of the Disasters photographs. Because it is evocative of classic “Cindy” (the short, silvery hair that is reminiscent of the actress from Untitled Film Stills #1-5, the vacant stare towards a space outside of the visual field, etc.), one cannot view it without thinking of it as an extension of the history of Cindy “portraits”– and I mean “portraits” in that the casual consumer would associate referential subject with identity of subject/artist. These “portraits” show an evolution of what one may claim is “Cindy’s” evolution (perhaps it isn’t even an evolution but rather disjointed points without a continuum– thoughts?), so that when one sees the Untitled Film Stills (1978-1980) followed by Rear Screen Projections (1980), Centerfolds (1981), Pink/Red Robes (1982), Fashion (1983-84), and then the Fairy Tales / Disasters (1985-1989), the narrative of time is ostensibly unavoidable. But is there a way to see the Disasters photographs as trying to deflate that theory?

    “Untitled #140” is a good example of the push away from the “natural” Cindy look that is adorned only by make-up or clothes, in that Sherman employs prosthetic parts to complete the subject– here it is a nose resembling that of a pig. However, the short, curly wig, human hands of five fingers, and eyes– those eyes!– all indicate “human;” however, how does one then compensate, or rather explain, the facial “deformity?” Because typically human characteristics outweigh the abnormal, the nose becomes the Other of the photograph– the mark of thwarted identity. So, then, the nose/mouth becomes something outside of the realm of the normal, and thus is read as existing for the sheer value of terror, or perhaps for thrusting the photographs outside of what is possible humanly and into the realm of the Surreal or fantasy. And if the latter is perceived as credible, then where do the photographs go, and from where to they come? Are they within the realm of an oeuvre, or are they outside of a Cindy Sherman narrative? Is there a Cindy Sherman narrative? Could they, potentially, have no context?

    The last question is difficult to tease out, because the impetus for many of these pictures come from Fairy Tales a la Brothers Grimm, as you mention. For example, the “Fitcher’s Bird” book project combines text with Sherman’s photographs, immediately juxtaposing her new work with that of the old text– it is a direct response to the fairy tale. So, then, are all of these photographs only worthwhile because they refer to something else? Are the locked into their context? Perhaps they are; however, because they venture into the realm of the visual, and when divorced from text (as when they’re shown in exhibition form), couldn’t they be seen as context in and of themselves? And by this I mean couldn’t they be extensions of many of Sherman’s emotional explorations, so the preface is emotion and the manifestation is a whole new Cindy vernacular?

    Another example– “Untitled #150.” It looks a lot like Cindy (as we “know” her to look), and is ostensibly one of the least gruesome of the collection. Although naked within the visual field, no taboo sexual organs are on display, and thus her nakedness is removed from the immediate dilemmas that may arise from this photograph. Instead, there are two main questions that take the forefront: what is she looking at, and what is wrong with her tongue? The subject’s gaze is much more connected to an imagined object than the vacancy exhibited in works like #153 or #130, and so one begins to develop the same narrative patterns as exhibited in the readings of the Untitled Film Stills. Next is the most loaded and tough question about the photograph– the anatomical problem with the tongue. It appears much too large for the size of the subject, and its surface texture appears to be that of sticky hard candy. The lush red of the tongue is both reminiscent of the mythical representation of tongue as bright red (when in actuality it is much more pink and dull) and evocative of desire. Since the tongue is an organ that has so many sexual implications, the implied is then what is most intriguing and successful in this photograph. While the nakedness might seem to the be sexually charged element of the photograph, it seems that the tongue is the centerpoint of desire and lust– it functions orally and is needed for most varieties of foreplay. Then, with the fingers touching the tongue, it appears to be an invitation, a proposition, a relishing of pleasure.

    Is “Untitled #150” a portrait? I cannot see it as such; rather, I feel it is a photograph that is wholly divorced from the narrative of portraiture and instead exists within the context of fairy tale discourse and outside the realms of both fairy tale and portraiture. I feel that the Fairy Tale / Disasters photographs announce a vital break from Sherman’s oeuvre as seen as a continuum; however, the announcement is neither verbal nor visually denoted. Instead, the sheer fact that Sherman employs prosthetics and ventures into the realm of sheer fantasy and the Surreal makes these photographs beyond the Other of her oeuvre and instead a wholly different thread. While one can make connections because of the artist (since Cindy Sherman produced all of the images), could the Fairy Tale / Disasters be seen as a wholly new motion by Sherman?

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  4. Joan on November 4, 2008 5:34 pm

    I think the ability to read these images as portraits stems from a more wide spread idea of the role that the portrait plays. I see the portrait as the framing of the human face within a 2-D plane, using the artist’s own emotive reading of the face in order to create a sense of the sitter. The portrait is a complete reflection of the interplay between the site and the artist’s hand.

    Because of this, Sherman’s use of prosthetic body parts work as props in creating a self image. Just as the bronze staffs, jeweled crowns, and silk curtains sometimes found in older oil portraits established symbolic readings of the sitter, so to do these prosthetic limbs. The swollen tongue of #150 presents a vision of Cindy Sherman as some kind of Gulliver’s Travels-like, grotesque figure. This figure draws definitely draws ties to sexual desire and foreplay, but that doesn’t limit the image as a portrait.

    I feel like these photographs actually come closer to the essence of portraiture due to nature of the subjects. Here the horrific images are more ambiguously drawn than in the Untitled Film Stills (1978-1980) or Centerfolds (1981), from which direct visual comparisons can be made between the original and Sherman’s appropriation (films can be found which closely match the scenarios constructed by Cindy).

    In the case of Disasters, Sherman created worlds completely foreign to the modern experience, these worlds are products of her imagination and her own visualizations of the verbal fairy tale. In my mind, these personal visualizations make these photographs of her face (regardless of how visible her actual skin is) much more telling regarding her inner thoughts and intentions than the photographs which came before. But I don’t believe she ever gets away from the act of portrayal throughout the entirety of her work.

    Though I definitely agree that the Disaster series presents a definite shift in direction within Sherman’s commentary on the Other and the subjugation of women within the male gaze. This reading of her work is still there, but the nature of the compositions reveal a much more liberated sense of Cindy herself as apposed to the restricted frames of the earlier film still appropriations.

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