Pho­tog­ra­pher Cindy Sher­man has built a long ca­reer around dress­ing as other peo­ple without ever re­veal­ing much of her true self, dis­cov­ers Dar­ryn King

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

In 1975, in her third year of col­lege, Cindy Sher­man cre­ated Un­ti­tled #479, the piece she still re­gards as her first se­ri­ous work of art: 23 stills that, shot by shot, track one char­ac­ter’s grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion from an­drog­y­nous mys­tery to glam­orous, beau­tyspot­ted, cig­a­rette-wield­ing vamp.

In a sin­gle class as­sign­ment, Sher­man an­nounced and con­veyed the themes that would pre­oc­cupy a life­time be­hind and in front of the cam­era. In the four decades since, she has played star­lets and har­lots, cen­tre­fold mod­els and housewives, fairy­tale char­ac­ters and fash­ion vic­tims. She has mas­quer­aded as a Madonna, as Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe and a crea­ture that au­thor Karl Ove Knaus­gaard chris­tened “the Pig-Hu­man”.

Toast­ing Sher­man at a gala at the Ham­mer Mu­seum in 2012, Steve Martin said: “On Hal­loween, Cindy Sher­man goes as her­self.”

John Wa­ters has called her a “fe­male fe­male im­per­son­ator”.

It’s shock­ing then, in its way, to see Sher­man, 62, undis­guised — look­ing pur­pose­fully non­de­script in a sen­si­ble blouse and pants. Or maybe part of the point of Sher­man’s work, as has been sug­gested, is that a wo­man is al­ways in dis­guise.

“I’m dressed up for this,” Sher­man says, smil­ing. “Nor­mally I’d re­ally be a slob.”

Con­sid­er­ing her mot­ley cre­ations, it’s prob­a­bly in­evitable that the so-called real Cindy Sher­man comes off, as Mi­randa July has put it, as more like a “dig­ni­fied doc­u­men­tar­ian than a crazy per­for­mance artist”.

Sher­man ac­knowl­edges the real­ity is of­ten a let-down for peo­ple. “They could also think that as a re­sult I’m not so in­ter­est­ing and that my work is where I let loose,” she has said. “That’s prob­a­bly true.”

To­day, Sher­man has been work­ing in her ninth-floor stu­dio that oc­cu­pies a gleam­ing Winka Dubbel­dam build­ing in West SoHo. (She lives in a pent­house apart­ment up­stairs, with a par­rot.) There’d be views of the Hud­son River if you could see them: by the time I ar­rive, late in the af­ter­noon, she has spent the whole day in­doors, ap­ply­ing fin­ish­ing touches to a new show.

“I hear it’s very nice out­side, right?” she asks. “Warm?”

One of Sher­man’s work­sta­tions is lined with bald Sty­ro­foam heads. Curl­ing plas­tic fin­gers sprout out from the edge of a table­top. There’s a rack of cos­tumes and wigs, and cheap fake plas­tic mous­taches and brows in pack­ets prob­a­bly plucked off a rack in Chi­na­town. Pho­to­graphs of women — silent movie stars, fash­ion mod­els, celebri­ties — adorn ev­ery wall. In the centre of the room is the well-lit, green screen-backed space where Sher­man’s char­ac­ters ma­te­ri­alise and mu­tate.

Sher­man is her own model, art di­rec­tor, cos­tume de­signer and wardrobe stylist, make-up artist and hairstylist. She used to de­velop her own pic­tures, too — now she touches them up dig­i­tally. She has been a one-wo­man show for most of her ca­reer, hav­ing found it strange to be in char­ac­ter with an as­sis­tant in the room. Noth­ing came of at­tempts to en­list fam­ily and friends as mod­els, and in her one foray as a movie di­rec­tor, in 1997’s Of­fice Killer, she found her­self even less suited to the co-op­er­a­tive en­deav­our of film­mak­ing.

Of­ten she finds her­self shoot­ing late into the night and some­times en­tirely aban­dons a day’s work if a char­ac­ter re­minds her too much of some­thing she has done in the past — or of her­self. Where a sin­gle con­tact sheet of hers was once crowded by di­verse char­ac­ters, these days she takes about 100 images of a new char­ac­ter, tak­ing the time to re­fine and get prop­erly ac­quainted with each one.

“Some­times it feels like pulling teeth. I keep try­ing dif­fer­ent wigs, dif­fer­ent cos­tumes, chang­ing make-up. Some­times at 9.30 I’ll be like, for­get it, it’s not go­ing to hap­pen, I’m over her!”

It’s a busy time. Af­ter her com­ing New York ex­hi­bi­tion at her gallery, Metro Pic­tures, where she’ll show her first body of work since 2012, she has a late-ca­reer ret­ro­spec­tive at the Queens­land Gallery of Mod­ern Art, Bris­bane on May 28. Next month she will open the first spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tion at the Broad Mu­seum in Los Angeles.

Sher­man feels de­pleted af­ter months of in­tense ac­tiv­ity such as these. “I get sick of it: sick of make-up, sick of cos­tumes. I need to take some time off from be­ing in front of a cam­era.”

Her pic­tures are elab­o­rate fic­tions rather than self-por­traits. For some­one who has made images of her­self con­tin­u­ously for four decades, Sher­man has cun­ningly avoided be­ing the sub­ject of her own work. She mostly hates hav­ing her photo taken by some­one else — “I never know what to do with my­self” — and dis­likes the con­cept of self­ies. “There’s some­thing wrong with a cul­ture that’s into that whole thing.” When she was dat­ing David Byrne she found his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with his fame and his fans dis­taste­ful. “To be per­fectly re­ally is into his celebrity,” she says.

It was Sher­man’s fear of self-ex­po­sure that led her to turn the lens on her­self in the first place. In col­lege, it was a spring tra­di­tion for stu­dents to go on a naked romp through the trees and snap pho­to­graphs of each other. “It was hor­ri­fy­ing to me,” Sher­man says with a laugh. “But one of our early projects was to con­front some­thing. I thought, OK, maybe I have to con­front that is­sue.” Sher­man took a se­ries of pho­to­graphs of her­self in the nude, dis­fig­ur­ing her body with pho­to­graphic ef­fects.

“That was when I re­ally started tak­ing pic­tures of my­self.”

When she en­rolled in the art course at the State Univer­sity Col­lege in Buf­falo, New York, her in­ten­tion had been to pur­sue draw­ing and paint­ing, with the vague idea she might be a court­room il­lus­tra­tor. “Dis­jointed and all over the place,” is how she now de­scribes her ef­forts as a painter. “There was no theme, no pas­sion or vi­sion in what I was paint­ing.”

In her sec­ond year, Sher­man failed her tech­ni­cally fo­cused in­tro­duc­tory pho­tog­ra­phy class. It was her third-year pho­tog­ra­phy pro­fes­sor, Bar­bara Jo Rev­elle, who en­cour­aged her to work on the ideas in­stead.

Sher­man had dis­cov­ered the work of Chris Bur­den and Vito Ac­conci, who used their bod­ies as the raw ma­te­rial of their art. At the same time, Sher­man had an in­ten­si­fy­ing ob­ses­sion with ex­per­i­ment­ing with make-up, fash­ion and the mal­leabil­ity of her own ap­pear­ance.

As a child, Sher­man had kept a trunk be­neath her bed over­flow­ing with dresses and thrift store finds. Play­ing dress-ups and cre­at­ing char­ac­ters was an at­ten­tion-seek­ing strat­egy, she says now. “I think it had to do with be­ing the youngest of five kids. There was a big gap be­tween me and the next one, so they were a whole sep­a­rate fam­ily by the time I came around. It was kind of like, maybe if you don’t like me this way … how about this way?”

Sher­man guesses that she was about 11 when she dressed up as an old lady and strolled the neigh­bour­hood with a friend in geri­atric pos­tures. She still re­mem­bers the thrill of ap­par­ently fool­ing a neigh­bour. “I’m sure he was hu­mour­ing us. He was act­ing like he re­ally hon­est, he

Cindy Sher­man’s Un­ti­tled #462 ( 2007-08) at the Queens­land Art Gallery, left; the artist at work in New York, be­low

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