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Ok – on to another bit of reading and images you may or may not appreciate.
I’ve been trying to broaden your horizons as you know, attempting to show you that camera club photography is just one extremely narrow example of a much broader pallete you should consider exploring – even if you don’t take up that style.
This time, I’m going to introduce you to Cindy Sherman – a New York based photographer best known for her Untitled Film Stillsof the late 1970s – a ground breaking work that had her pose as if she was part of the promotional material for a movie. These are very clever and inspired images, well planned and meticulously shot. You would think they were from a movie set. You could say these are selfies, but they are far more than that. They examine the role and portrayal of women in the post war United States of her youth, exposing both the character and the vulnerability of women of the time.
Sherman belongs to what is referred to as the Pictures Generation – a title coined by MOMA to describe these artists who have taken the images that flooded the world they grew up in and used it to analyse that world and critique it as described in this essay on the Metropolitan Museum of Art web site.
Sherman started this exploration with the Untitled Film Stills and stopped it when she felt it was starting to become repetitive (now there’s a hint!).
The success of that work led to several commissions for art and fashion magazines which were again unconventional and she used herself as the model. The magazine Art Forum commissioned her where she explored the idea of the centrefold. Art Forum rejected the work which MOMA has acquired. She also did some work for Interview magazine modelling the clothing of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Comme de Carcons creating images that were anything but glamorous. These were much more successful. She did other shoots for Harper’s Bazaar and French Vogue
Vanity Fair asked her to do a series depicting fairy tales – and she pushed the boundaries again with surreal and unusual images by exploring the less appealing stories. The examples were not specific – but fitted the generic mold of the fairy tales. After that, she did a series entitled Disasters which examined the characters of classic horror fiction and not so much their horror but their vulnerability.
Subsequently she photographed a series assuming the persona of historical figures in paintings. These are challenging in many ways and may not appeal to you. But again, they make you think outside of the standard view. They are really montages of many historical paintings and seem to mock, parody and distort the originals with her use of lighting, prosthetics and background. The series challenges the classical paintings both as paintings and in the context of gender portrayal. This essay available at the National Gallery of Victoria website by Beth Hinderliter will perhaps explain it for you. Another essay by Arielle Orem examines several images by comparing them to the original painting.
Sherman then moved on again – she never lingers in one area. She obtained medical prosthetics again and posed them incongruously to create new human like forms – grotesque and challenging. The series entitled Sex Pictures was a critique of the definition of obscenity and the censorship of photographers such as Robert Maplethorpe and Andres Serrano.
Another series followed photographing herself in clown makeup & settings again creating caricatures of these images of her childhood and youth. These clowns were not of the pleasant entertaining type but ones that have a face behind the mask and greasepaint and at the same time have a creepy feel to them. This was her first work in digital and she used both the settings and the vivid colours to explore the clown persona.
She more recently explored women in modern privileged society – the Society Portraits – a study of modern women from the elites of our world. It’s not always a pretty picture. The aim is to both critique the need to maintain the illusion of beauty as well as examine these women’s roles.
This report in the Guardian last year shows a series of images from both the Clown and Society series.
One theme that may come to you as you view many of her images is that she is portraying the consumer culture of the world around her not necessarily with love but with a critical eye, examining its nature and exposing its flaws and it’s insincerity. The modern world is full of images vying for our attention. But they are false gods and need to be carefully analysed and exposed. Photographically her images are not static stories but attempt to make the viewer explore more.
You can examine many more of her works at MOMA if your interest is piqued. They have a chronological display of her works, you may read about her here at the Art21 website which has an excellent selection of videos demonstrating here work and here at the Art Story website
Sherman’s work is also interesting and important as I believe it inspires others. I came across the work of Kourtney Roy recently and was immediately struck by the echos of Cindy Sherman. See what you think.
To finish off I’d like to go back even further in time – to early cameras. The first is a simple homage to the Leica 35mm camera and some of the great photographs that influenced Sherman and many of us.
The second is an example of what we should be doing as photographers – learn to use our equipment but also understand our subject to the extent that the camera becomes a tool to analyse and express that subject. This photographer used a 1913 Graflex 4×5 camera to record modern Formula 1 racing – not shooting at 20 frames/second but 20 frames in a film pack. Think about it – every shot has to count.
I’ll leave you to ponder those ideas.