Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cindy Sherman's Ugly Fashion

I have always been drawn to female artists, not in the least because, frankly, there aren't enough. The male artist, as well as the male gaze, has long dominated art and fashion, with the great exception of Coco Chanel. The woman was long destined to take on the role of 'muse' or 'model'.
Cindy Sherman defies this fact and is undoubtedly one of the most famous photographers of the last century. In her work she comments on the position of the woman in the art world. Her 'Untitled Film Stills' series, which she produced between 1977 and 1980evokes the atmosphere of the black and white film without explicitly copying a particular movie. She takes on the persona of female figures, who are not seldom engaging in domestic activities.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21 , 1978
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #3 , 1977

In addition to this clear affinity with the cinematic medium, Sherman also centered on the connection of paintings from the pre-modern art tradition with the postmodern world. In the series History Portraits (1989 - 1990) Sherman has photographed herself in the style of the traditional painters.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1989

Using props to replace human body parts, the artist gets inside the character portrayed. This is the moment that Sherman's work starts to get unsettling, even creepy.
Also in these works, the image of the woman is critically defined. This happens for example in Untitled #228 in 1990. Here Sherman portrays herself as the biblical character Judith who holds the severed head of Holofernes.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #228, 1990

 This theme reflects a certain feminism. The woman in this story is indeed depicted as a pious heroine who saves her people from foreign dominationThis is an exceptional theme in the Bible, where the woman is usually depicted as the fruit of all sins. 

Dozens of books have been written about Cindy Sherman's oeuvre, but the thing that gets overlooked quit often is her affinity with fashion. 
Her fashion series of 1983 caused a stirr. Sherman was asked to do a series of advertisements for the Dianne B. store. These photographs appeared in Interview Magazine.  

Cindy Sherman for Interview Magazine, 1983
The pictures that resulted from Sherman's efforts can be described as the antithesis of conventional fashion photography like that of Richard Avedon. The female persona is displayed as imperfect, distorted, psychologically challenged and worn down. The poses appear uncomfortable, clumsy and even silly. The clothes have lost their shape and are unflattering. I interpret this as a feminist way of pushing the boundaries of what is considered to be the perfect female body.

In 1993 Sherman repeated this act with pictures for Harper's Bazaar. 

Cindy Sherman for Harper's Bazaar, 1993

To me these look much more 'fashion' and can be compared to some alternative contemporary fashion editorials. In the nineties however, this imagery was considered innovative and even provocative.

In 1994 she collaborated with Rei Kawakubo, providing advertisement material for the fall/winter 1994 collection of Comme des Garçons. The views of this fashion label coincided with Sherman's look on photography.

Cindy Sherman for Comme des Garçons, 1994

  In 2006, she worked on advertisements for designer Marc Jacobs with fashion photographer Juergen Teller.

Cindy Sherman and Juergen Teller for Marc Jacobs, 2006

Notice again the poses that are not usually used in fashion photography. The construction of this picture resembles that of a family portrait.

In 2008, she made a series for Balenciaga. Once again the characters look old, tired and out of place.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Balenciaga), 2008

In 2011 cosmetic company M.A.C. acquired Sherman as the face and photographer for the fall line. The three images of the campaign depict three different colorpalets. Sherman transforms into a clown, a vulgar heiress and an angel-faced cheerleader. Not exactly what you have in mind when thinking of a make-up add.

Cindy Sherman for M.A.C., fall 2011
Although Cindy Sherman's road can't be reduced to a feminist battle, you could say that in this add Sherman's voice was heard. By replacing the young perfect model with a female artist, who's well in her fifties, but above all raising fashion advertizing to the level of free art, liberates not only women but also fashion photography.

Imperfection in fashion photography is on the rise. Unfortunately this still happens too scarcely and stays limited to the alternative magazines.

I give my vote to art, theater and (limited) ugliness in my mags!

The Mere Alchemist 

Cindy Sherman's work
Museum of Modern Art in NY :A retrospective of Cindy Sherman runs now till the 11th of June 2012.


  1. Je bent echt cool, ik ben gek op Cindy Sherman! :D meer van dit soort doordachte posts on the webz please!

    1. Zegt de coolste blogger van België ;) I wish I had more time..... Maar er komen er zeker meer!