Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Thinking out loud about Cindy Sherman and the meaning of ‘portrait’

Cindy Sherman is an American photographer who is renowned for her self-portraits in styles borrowed from other genres – ‘50s American movies, centre-folds, historical portraits etc. Much of her work is considered to draw attention to the stereo typing of women.

It’s the self-portraiture that attracted me to her work, as I’ve been working on self-portraits for assignment 1. Her Wikipedia entry attributes a quote from her in the New York Times as follows:

"I feel I'm anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren't self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear."

This is an interesting statement – if a photo of her, taken by her, is not a self-portrait, then what is it? This website, which is an unofficial Sherman tribute site proposes that her photos are not portraits because they do not represent a real person, simply a type.  I can see that this suggestion has some parallels with acting. If I go to the Royal Shakespeare Company I am clearly not watch King Lear in the flesh, but equally I am not watching the actor. I am watching an actor who has had part of his personal character subsumed by the role, but at the same time he has developed Lear by adding some of his own feelings and reactions to the part.

Taking this back to the original question I’m not sure the photos are purely ‘type’. Presumably she brings part of herself to them (since she is essentially acting the type) and they impose some of themselves on to her for the duration of the photo. If we take her statement above at face value we could argue that they so successfully impose themselves on her that her personality disappears from the image. Even so I am still left to wonder why she chose those ‘types’ – her input is in the choice of type unless they were simply random selections based on available props.

Is it unreasonable to assume that the types might tell us something about her in spite of the absence of ‘her’ from those shots? Bringing this question back home, could it be that a careful selection of ‘types’ or other substitutes for my personality could produce a valid series of photos which provide an insight into the way I think and feel?

I’ve got an idea forming for a series of which involves merging my face with statues of people or objects that particularly interest me. I’ll be submitting the first with Assignment 1 in the next couple of days, but there’s a germ of an idea here that seems worth exploring further.

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