PRINT December 1985


Cindy Sherman's camera kabuki.

THE CRITICISM THAT views Cindy Sherman’s role-playing photography as a deconstruction of female stereotypes (like a latter-day August Sander project, but with media images of women replacing his cataloguing of the German people), while applicable, now seems too academic and willful for the transvestism that Sherman has been staging of late. Her recent transformational characters, whether created with expressive makeup, lighting, and shadows or with the use of masks, whether she appears as a snout-faced pig or as a bearded man, have such a stylized, out-of-time, out-of-sex quality that they leave the politics of our time and enter the magical time of make-believe.

Fantasy is as much a part of Sherman’s art as is a theoretical analysis of the roles we play, and of the selves we’re offered as models. Even in her earlier “film stills” series, 1977–80, about movie typecasting, there’s a deeply personal thread that ties these public pictures to her psychological apparatus. For example, the story behind the famous photo that looks like an appropriated scene from Bus Stop goes as follows: Sherman was on a car trip with her mother and father. In the car were wigs, outfits, miscellaneous props, and her camera, which she’d brought along to bide the time. They were driving along one of those roads in Arizona with a few bitty trees, and an occasional pond that looks like a large puddle from a moving car, when they turned a bend for more of the same. Sherman asked to stop the car, put on an outfit, set up the camera, ran into the frame of scenery she wanted, and told her father when to click the camera. The result: a glamorous, romantic, Hollywood image. They played this game along the way at various spots. Creating a different life from the one we have in the back seat is something we all do in our imaginations, but instead of letting it slip away, Sherman stops it frame by frame—whether gorgeous or battered—to see what it would look and feel like. She knows that photography is the modern equivalent of the mask and that it offers an opportunity to show all of our selves—except one. This is modern-day kabuki that she’s performing. What Cindy Sherman the photographer “really” looks like would hurt the magic as much as seeing a kabuki star out of costume and in the bank.

The studio drama performed here by three Cindy Shermans—you have to include the one offstage taking the picture, whose trace is left by the cord of the light meter—is the popular theme of photographer and subject in a primal battle over control. This is an archaic fight, both pre- and post-Modern. The spirit inside the tripod could change it into a club at any moment. The old man has had it with the photographer’s tricks and the photographer is passively goading him even further so he can get the picture he wants.

Ingrid Sischy