Fashion Untitled #512

Published on August 29th, 2012 | by Setsu Uzume


The Devil In The Details – Cindy Sherman at the SF MoMA

Cindy Sherman is a one-woman show. She is not only a photographer, but also her own model, make-up artist, hair-stylist, wardrobe manager and post-production artist. Currently, her 35-year retrospective is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Sherman’s photos each tell their own story through her expression, composition and tiny details you have to really look for.

I had the pleasure of walking through the exhibit with docent Sandy Hunt. She chose this exhibit because it’s challenging for the viewer. For though Sherman is always the model, she is never the subject. The most common themes Sherman returns to are identity, the manufactured image and how easy it is to see the cracks in the façade.

“All of her work is untitled, so the viewer can let their imagination run wild,” Hunt said.

In 1977, Sherman exhibited “Untitled Film Stills,” a series of 69 black-and-white prints of the full spectrum of women—from B-movie heroines to bored housewives. Hunt explained that they were meant to look like cheap throw-away shots for 50s film publicity and each image puts you in the middle of these imaginary movies. When Sherman was fresh out of college, the New York MoMA bought the entire series. Sherman’s career had begun.

The narrative element of Sherman’s work is her trademark and she accomplishes it with the addition of little details. Her “Hollywood to the Hamptons” series features portraits or head-shots like the ones you’d see in JC Penny: they all show different female characters trying to appear tough, beautiful or youthful, but in many cases they miss the mark. The series demonstrates how women in photographs seem to constantly try to sell themselves without quite managing to convince the observer.

Helene Winer, owner of Metro Pictures Gallery, sees these portraits as imposing, vain, and confrontational—completely different from the coy figures in the film stills.

“There’s something that these women really have at stake,” said Winer in a video interview on the SF MoMA website. “These are people and you are standing there inspecting them…They have a lot of secrets they hold.”

The stories in her high-society portraits are much the same. Red-rimmed eyes, dyed hair, plastic surgery and cheap plastic accessories highlight the falseness of the upper-class character she portrays. Pointedly, these shots were taken in 2008, just before the economic collapse.

“The women in this body of work in many ways are tragic,” said Eva Respini in her SF MoMA interview.  “Because they’re presented in larger-than-life style you can really see every detail.  It speaks to this contemporary way of being, and the fact that photography is very complicit in the way in which identity is manufactured today”.

As with the “Hollywood to Hamptons” series, Sherman’s work showcases the loss youth in the simultaneous need to cling to beauty while the masks we wear easily fall apart.

Though she has been criticized for being mean-spirited, Sherman never had that intention. She was always playing with her subject matter. By making herself the model, and highlighting flaws and imperfections, she demonstrates her sympathy for the women who feel the need to project a sexier, stronger image. By showcasing her characters’ vulnerability, Sherman shines light on our own.

Her 1980s “Centerfolds” series was commissioned by Art Form Magazine. Sherman shot herself as twelve different girls—as though for a Playboy calendar—in vulnerable or pensive states. They were designed to make the audience uncomfortable and voyeuristic. I myself felt like an intruder, watching a young girl worry over some internal struggle.

At the end of it all, Hunt quoted Diane Arbus, saying, “Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way, but they come out looking another way, and that’s what people observe. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.”

However, this is exactly where Cindy Sherman’s true talent lies: making flaws the stars of the show.

Cindy Sherman’s 35-year retrospective will be on display at the San Francisco Musuem of Modern Art until October 8th, 2012.

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About the Author

Shot from New York like a bat out of hell, Setsu is a writer and collector of stories. She recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Chinese Language & Literature. Her coursework included a stint at a monastery in rural China, where she studied swordplay and Daoist philosophy. Setsu is a co-founder of writing groups in Seattle and San Francisco, where new writers can take their first steps toward publication. She has dabbled in many arts, but only martial arts and writing seem to have stuck. Visit her blog at

One Response to The Devil In The Details – Cindy Sherman at the SF MoMA

  1. Mary Scott says:

    I love women artists with a point of view, but who let the observer draw their own meaning (and names) from the experience.

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