In 1975 Cindy Sherman embarked on her series of self-portraits ‘Untitled Film Stills’, which started to become known after the exhibition Four Artists (Artists Space, New York, 1978), and which soon became a landmark in the context of the debate on postmodernism that dominated the New York scene from the late 1970s. These first small-format, black-and-white images showed the artist in different places representing stereotypical female characters, evoking the atmosphere of B movies of the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1980s Sherman began to use colour and compose larger-format stagings that were more elaborate and complex. Unlike her first self-portraits, these later works were all produced in the studio. Through the use of light to create a dramatic atmosphere and an initially very modest staging, the artist constructed her images with a strong sense of narrative, though the precise meaning always remained unclear.
In the postmodernism debate, photography inevitably occupied a place of particular importance. In his influential essay ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism’, Douglas Crimp suggested that Cindy Sherman called into question notions of autobiography and identity with her staged self-portraits, in which she showed that all these concepts were culturally established conventions and, in the final analysis, fictions. For Crimp the impersonality, reproducibility and use value of photography also challenged the notion of a unique, original and autonomous work, one of the pillars of modern art and aesthetics.
The staged self-portrait is a way of questioning photographic realism as old as photography itself and a fundamental strategy for the artistic practices that emerged from the feminist debate, which is part of the theoretical background to Sherman’s work. From the 1960s, many women artists began to use photography to document their performances. This use was based on the value historically attributed to photography as a means of giving documentary form to staged identities, rather like Marcel Duchamp photographically cross-dressing as Rrose Sélavy. Staged self-portraits allude to social and historical processes for the construction of identity and are therefore a key strategy for questioning such identities; hence their relevance to the feminist debate. In her self-portraits, Sherman acts as a ‘woman disguised as a woman’, parodically staging female roles defined by a dominant, internalised male gaze.
Around 1989 Sherman began to make self-portraits that reconstructed paintings by artists such as Caravaggio, Rafael and Ingres. The focus on the history of painting in her ‘History Portraits’ seemed to be a natural consequence of various features that had been present in her work since the early 1980s, namely, the growing complexity of her stagings, both in terms of light and scenic elements, and in her use of disguises and prostheses, a process that involved an increasingly grotesque deformation of the artist’s features; and a reflection on the very process of constructing her photographic images. Her use of format and composition, as well as dramatisation, involves a fresh photographic updating of the concept of the image-picture, whose origin lies in the history of painting.
In the 1990s Sherman stressed the grotesque and sinister tone of her self-portraits and began her series ‘Sex Pictures’, in which we no longer see the artist, only the objects used in her stagings. Those images of pure artificiality present compositions of sex objects and prostheses and combine the mise en scène of pornographic instruments with details of organic waste and body effluents, as if exploring fragments of their depths, or gloomier, denser and more elaborate scenarios.