The art of creating a character is somewhat of an unconscious affair. Egotism, self-esteem, and one’s emotional well being are unconscious players central to a character’s nativity. Yet, the art of creating a memorable character is even more strenuous. A character that many could relate to or at least find a place for in their imagination, a personality undiscovered or a face not yet expressed... these are products of the imaginary character for which an artist can visualize and record into their medium.
It's a sensitive thing to birth a piece of abstract humanity, to say the least. A brush stroke could be as microscopically misdirected as the inconvenient mood that deviated it. So much as an inch of lighting turned the wrong way transforms a midnight seductress into an early morning burnout. When we have these characters, no matter how we come to meet them, their unique personalities are what really push the regular Joe’s state of mind into more imaginative territories. It takes a conscious mind to notice a character but an unconscious mind to draw a conclusion to one. Cindy Sherman, the character-photographer savant behind the focus of this rhetoric, is like a mediator between the conscious recognition and subconscious abstraction of a character.
Sherman takes all types of people we may come across in person or our minds -- a blonde buxom, an abuse victim, a rainbow streaked clown, a terrified centerfold, a corpse, the Roman god Bacchus, a mutilated hermaphrodite sex doll, a cowgirl, a Victorian scholar, a bronzed up Hamptons type -- and makes herself all of them through her signature, portraiture photographs. Her work has shifted in compositional focus over the years, but her ideas remain consistent. Sherman is most well known for her Untitled Film Stills series, which she completed between 1977 and 1980. It's comprised of articulate, unrelated images that each tell an entire movie’s worth of narrative in just a singular shot with her at the forefront of every photograph.
Her story as an artist is a curious one. Sherman is the youngest of five siblings in an unassuming family living in Long Island, New York who took an interest in visual arts when she studied at Buffalo State College. At first a competent painter who had a talent as a copyist, she quickly became frustrated by the lack of immediacy of the medium. Why paint an apple when she could photograph it instead? This funny kind of logic was the root of a crucial realization that boded well with her ideals as an artist. At a time when photography students were not interested in art and the art world wasn’t interested in photography, Sherman took up this new medium at vexing crossroads. Even more vexing was the gender imbalance of art, she says in a 2012 interview with the Guardian, right before her retrospective at the San Francisco MOMA. "There's a theory that there were so many women photographers at the time because we felt nobody else was doing it. We couldn't or didn't really want to go into the male-dominated painting world, so since there weren't any artists who were using photographs, we thought, 'Well, yeah, let's just play with that.'"
Although not a self-identified feminist, many praise Sherman’s work as a strong voice for women in the art world, a theme she contended with throughout her successful career. In her 1981 photo-series Centrefolds, Sherman called attention to the stereotyping of women in films, television and magazines. When talking about one of her centerfold pictures Cindy stated, "In content I wanted a man opening up the magazine suddenly look at it with an expectation of something lascivious and then feel like the violator that they would be. Looking at this woman who is perhaps a victim. I didn't think of them as victims at the time... But I suppose... Obviously I'm trying to make someone feel bad for having a certain expectation." Despite intending to send a message with that particular series, Sherman is widely known to be personally disassociated with her work, leaving nearly all her work untitled or obviously titled, leaving much speculation of her work up to the audience.
Going another extra mile, Sherman even denies being an actress of sorts. She claims to have never been acting originally nor does she have any early exposure to traditional theater. The close-ups of her “unconsciously” forced her into what many consider her work as a photographic actress. In a 1985 interview with BOMB magazine, she elaborates, “I think of becoming a different person. I look into a mirror next to the camera…it’s trance-like. By staring into it I try to become that character through the lens. It seems to work out, it sounds like meditation. But something happens that makes it more fun for me because I have no control over it. Something else takes over.” What Cindy Sherman captures in her work is the psychology of her characters. Yet, this could be and has been interpreted by some critics as a trip through the mind of an egotist. While a granted assumption, what still stands is the gravity of her work. It compels, it repels, it comforts people, discomforts others, just like any personality we familiarize ourselves with.
As an influential artist, Cindy Sherman represents a bridge in the art world. Using herself as the vehicle, Sherman’s work takes the sensibilities and evocativeness of the high art world and breathes pop culture and familiarity into an otherwise inaccessible and incestual side of American culture. Her work has sold for millions, some of her fans include fellow egotists such as Lady Gaga, Madonna and Elton John as well as the lunatic asylum known as a the New York City art critics. But, like a dream we’ve all had, her work unites the weird with the regular and sets the stage for any mind enraptured with an appreciation of a character.