6 Themes Photographer Cindy Sherman Explores With Her Evocative Portraits


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With a career spanning over 40 years, Cindy Sherman is considered one of the most successful photo artists living today. Sherman uses herself as her primary model, but her images are not considered standard self-portraits. Each carefully considered photo is a representation of a character, theme, or situation. This means that Sherman not only poses as the subject of her images, but she also assumes the role of makeup artist, stylist, art director, and, of course, photographer.

Under different guises, Sherman takes on the identity of stereotypes that have appeared in art and media throughout history. She dismantles preconceptions and sheds a harsh light on these typecasts, revealing the often sinister or humorous narratives behind them. Read on to discover six different themes that Sherman has explored with her photographs.

Here are six themes Cindy Sherman explores with her fine art photography.


Untitled Film Stills

In her Untitled Film Stills series (1977–1980), Sherman puts herself in the roles of B movie actors. The 70 black and white images show her dressed up in wigs, hats, dresses, and clothes as she poses to represent female stereotypes in film. The series is shot in a variety of locations, including New York City streets, yards, pools, beaches, and even Sherman’s own apartment.

Each image is reminiscent of stills in 1940s American film noir and features typical cinematic angles, lighting, and dramatization. For Sherman, ambiguity is important. She didn’t want her characters to show particularly strong emotions, nor did she want the scene to give away an obvious plot. Instead, each “still” stages a scene “in-between the action.”

During the time Sherman worked on the series, the feminist movement was gaining traction. By portraying female characters that are deeply embedded in our cultural society—career girl, bombshell, lonely housewife, society lady—Sherman points out the absurdity of female stereotypes in movies, but also magazines, advertisements, and other media at the time. Three years after the project ended, Sherman was quoted saying she stopped simply because she “ran out of clichés.”


Fairy Tales and Disasters

Feeling pigeonholed as a feminist photographer, Sherman gradually began moving away from her representations of women and moved towards lurid, disturbing imagery. In 1985, Sherman was commissioned by Vanity Fair magazine to illustrate fairy tales. She decided to seek out the most bizarre characters and grotesque narratives and found inspiration in Aesop’s fables, the Brothers Grimm, and various folktales. Like her previous work, Sherman used herself as the primary model but transformed herself using masks, prostheses, and theatrical paint to produce a series of richly colored images.

In her Disasters series (1986-89), Sherman made a significant change in her style, as she removed herself from the images. The only traces of a human subject are represented by body part prosthetics, vomit, and other unpleasant substances.


History Portraits

Sherman’s History Portraits (1988–90) are humorous caricatures of subjects in Old Master paintings. The artist returns to casting herself as the character and poses in full costume with props and exaggerated body part prosthetics. Sherman represents a number of historical art periods in the series, including Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical. Her subjects include typical subjects painted by artists such as Raphael and CaravaggioMadonna and child, clergymen, aristocrats, women of leisure, and milkmaids.




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Between 2003 and 2004, Sherman produced her Clowns series. She wears extreme makeup and flamboyant costumes while using digitally rendered backgrounds of garish colors and montages of numerous characters. Sherman attempts to reveal the underlying character of the clown that lies behind their hysterically happy facade. Many of her clown representations look sad or as though they have evil intentions.



In 1983, Sherman produced a series of 14 images that challenged the fashion industry’s beauty conventions. She photographed herself wearing high-fashion clothing by designers, including Comme des Garçons, Dorothee Bis, Issey Miyake, and Jean-Paul Gaultier. However, rather than pose like a model you would find in a magazine today, Sherman appears un-glamorous, eccentric, and sometimes even ill.




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In 2017, Sherman allowed public access to her private Instagram account, where she has an ever-growing collection of digitally manipulated selfies. She uses various phone apps to distort her face, add backgrounds, faux makeup, moles, and wrinkles. Her artistically produced selfies are perhaps poking fun at social media culture, where there are countless highly curated personas online.

Cindy Sherman: Website | Instagram | Twitter 

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Emma Taggart

Emma Taggart is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. Originally from Northern Ireland, she is an artist now based in Berlin. After graduating with a BA in Fashion and Textile Design in 2013, Emma decided to combine her love of art with her passion for writing. Emma has contributed to various art and culture publications, with an aim to promote and share the work of inspiring modern creatives. While she writes every day, she’s also devoted to her own creative outlet—Emma hand-draws illustrations and is currently learning 2D animation.
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