the untitled film stills
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Photo taken by Chuck Close
Sherman, Cindy (b. 1954), American photographer and celebrated contemporary artist. Her Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), begun after her BA at State University College of Buffalo, New York, attracted instant attention. This was a series of black-and-white photographs inspired by 1950s film adverts in which, as in all her later work, she performed simultaneously as model, photographer, make-up artist, and designer. The images did not make reference to any particular movie or autobiographical narrative, but to stereotypes of female heroines in films. Moving to colour, she continued to point to the socially constructed nature of femininity by subverting culturally prevalent images. In her Untitled series of 1981, Sherman used the horizontal, looking-down format of the ‘centrefolds’ in pornographic magazines, but frustrated the expectations of the genre, using discordant and unsettling poses. In Fashion Pictures (1983-4; her images are untitled, and numbered in one continuous sequence) the smooth appeal of fashion photographs is disturbed by angry or inane poses, scarred faces, or the appearance of bodily fluids, as if the models were beginning to physically reject the masquerade of femininity. While ‘the feminine struggle to conform to a facade of desirability’ (Laura Mulvey) continued to haunt Sherman's iconography, her images from the later 1980s and 1990s seem to reveal the monstrous otherness behind the masquerade. Loosely based on myth, horror, and fairy tales, they feature characters of uncertain gender and species, enlarged glistening organs, ozzing orifices, decomposing body parts, and foodstuff tainted by vomit and decay, all rendered vividly by her accomplished use of deeply saturated prints. Her amazing, almost painterly make-up, and costumes, prostheses, and lighting, are used to recreate generic old masters in a series, History Portraits (1988-90), that seems to investigate the art-historical dimension of the contradictions and anxieties explored in her previous work.

Returning to her preoccupation with female identity, her late work seems to reference the ‘makeover’ photographs advertised at the back of women's magazines (2000-2). We still wince at the fashion mistakes, bad skin, and excessive make-up of Sherman's protagonists as they struggle to fulfil familiar clichés of successful femininity, precariously balanced between the ridiculous and the poignant. In this respect, they are conceptually related to the Clowns included in a major retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 2003. Sherman's work has attracted much attention from feminist critics, who have seen it as a positive act of resistance to dominant constructions of femininity.

— Patrizia di Bello