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Why Cindy Sherman Doesn’t Want Your Pity

Like a superhero masking their “real” identity, Cindy Sherman may be the most photographed person in history whose “real” face (whatever that means) remains a mystery. Since the 1970s Sherman’s played dress up in front of the camera, adding to makeup and costumes her own protean secret ingredient to come up with some of the most enigmatic and unforgettable images commenting on our modern age of image saturation. In the major retrospective exhibition Cindy Sherman, which runs at Museum of Modern Art, New York, through June 11, 2012, we still don’t see the “real” face of Cindy Sherman, but we get to see all her different faces over the decades in one place. Although some would see many of these images as calls for empathy or perhaps even pity, after seeing the show and reading the catalog, you will come away knowing why Cindy Sherman doesn’t want and doesn’t need your pity, and never, ever did.

The first reaction to seeing Sherman’s photos is to call them self-portraits. Eva Respini, curator of the retrospective, immediately disabuses you of that notion in her perceptive catalog essay, which is more about how we see the photos than about the photos themselves. “The fact that Sherman is in her photographs is immaterial,” Respini writes, “but he ongoing speculation about her identity gets to the very heart of her work and its resonance.” Don’t think of Sherman as the subject, Respini suggests, think of her as simply a model, who also happens to be conceptualizing and taking the photo. We want to make the simple leap to identification and say we “see” Sherman, but Sherman’s photographs are all about what we think we see, but really don’t.

“I may be thinking about a certain story or situation, but I don’t become her,” Sherman has responded to questions about her inner thoughts during shooting. “There’s this distance. The image in the mirror becomes her—the image the camera gets on film. And the one thing I’ve always known is that the camera lies.” Just when you want to argue that photographs tell the truth, Sherman stops you cold. Most people know Sherman for her late 1970s series of photographs known collectively as Untitled Film Stills. The series title itself suggests that the pictures came from movies of the 1940s to 1960s, when studios would produce and distribute stills from their films. But the camera lies. You can make your own connections, but not a single one of the photos alludes to a specific film (at least according to Sherman). So, when you look at the fresh-faced girl of Untitled Film Still #12 and read the moxie on her face as the big, bad city looms above her, that entire back story sprang not from the picture but from your own head. To prove that identity is purely a construct, Sherman repeatedly invites you to construct one, and to realize you can’t help but accept. “Rather than explorations of inner psychology, her pictures are about the projection of personas and stereotypes that are deep-seated in our shared cultural imagination,” Respini explains.

The exhibition not only collects the Untitled Film Stills, but everything that followed and rejected the early, wildly successful work. As feminists and postmodernists closed in on Sherman and her work in hopes of gathering her into their folds, Sherman resisted those identities, too. For all the ink that has been spilled in the name of Cindy Sherman, little of it has stuck to her. When French Vogue called in 1984, Sherman gave them made intentionally ugly pictures “to rip open the French fashion world.” Even a decade later, Harper’s Bazaar received the bizarre Untitled #299. Confronted in 1992 by the idea of “centerfolds,” Sherman produced a series of “sex” photos that are “a refusal to make a sexy image about sex,” Sherman admitted, and that are as much about the dehumanizing of women as sexual objects (tellingly, Sherman herself never appears in these and, instead, uses props) as they are about the sexual side of the culture wars that threatened Robert Mapplethorpe and other artists of the time.

With the exception of a series of “Old Master” style photos (which seem like a palate-cleansing sorbet now), Sherman’s photography since the 1980s has gotten uglier and more grotesque and, consequently, more controversial. Seeing crazed clowns juxtaposed with photos of older woman that can be best described as past their prime but still denying it, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that Sherman’s making fun of someone. One can look at a photo such as Untitled #474 and even see cruelty, especially if that photo resembles us or someone we love. Writing on the dynamic between “abstraction and empathy” in Sherman’s art, Johanna Burton raises the question of where the empathy exists, or perhaps belongs. “[S]hould we be looking for it in the artist’s intent or in the images themselves,” Burton asks, “or should we instead be searching for it in each particular viewer?” Is empathy, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

Respini sees empathy in how Sherman meticulously reproduces the tiniest details of these aging women “characters.” In a wonderfully wacky interview of Sherman conducted by filmmaker John Waters, the artist rejects the idea of her as a “practical joker” making fun of her subjects, and even goes so far to admit empathy for some of her characters. “My heart goes out to them,” Sherman says of some of her later characters. “I just adore them.” So where’s does that empathy go when the photographs hit the gallery wall? It doesn’t go anywhere, because it was never there to begin with. Maybe, ultimately, “we can step away from the vexed search for signs of ‘empathy’—both within Sherman’s recent pictures and the ambiguous pangs they inspire in viewers,” Burton offers in the end, “and recognize our own part in creating the individuals before us.” It doesn’t matter if Sherman cares or not. What matters is whether we do? Cindy Sherman doesn’t want your empathy or your pity. She wants you to want them.

In a recent feature in The Financial Times, Simon Schama praised the “sheer range of human types [Sherman] manages to print on her face,” concluding that “Hers is the real Facebook.” I’ll take Schama’s metaphor one step further and suggest that her characters are more like Facebook “friends” than real, three-dimensional friends. Facebook friends often exist purely in two dimensions on a computer screen—an easy interaction with little personal investment. What transforms them into real friends is that personal investment—empathy that goes beyond wishing a quick happy birthday when the notification pops up on our screen. The exhibition Cindy Sherman and its accompanying catalog (which in addition to its excellent essays reproduces 180 works in stunning resolution thanks to a new printing process) reminds us that human interaction is work. Simply looking at pictures and connecting the mental dots isn’t enough. The camera lies. Even if we never find our “true” self, we can always know that we’re always more than the labels we and others put on ourselves.

[Image:Cindy Sherman. Untitled #474 (detail). 2008. Chromogenic color print, 7′ 6 3/4″ x 60″ (230.5 x 152.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor, Michael Lynne, Charles Heilbronn, and the Carol and David Appel Family Fund © 2012 Cindy Sherman.]

[Many thanks to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for providing me with the image above from, press materials related to, and a review copy of the catalog to the exhibition Cindy Sherman, which runs through June 11, 2012.]


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