She Actually Hates the Idea of Selfies
I think people are more apt to believe photographs, especially if it’s something fantastic. They’re willing to be more gullible. Sometimes they want fantasy. Even if they know it’s fake, they can believe anything. People are accustomed to being told what to believe in.”
– Cindy Sherman, 1985
Cindy Sherman Untitled #92, 1981, Chromogenic color print, 24 x 48 inches (61 x 121.9 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
I’m scrolling through my Instagram feed: My former colleagues’ night out in town, Bella Hadid looking superhuman on a yacht, a characteristic installation by Olafur Eliasson, a painting from MoMa’s permanent collection and so on. A certain division of the posts into two categories appears obvious; on the one hand selfies and everyday pictures hauled my way by friends and celebrities, on the other hand there’s all the art (and there is really a lot of it); posted by the vast number of artists and galleries I’ve set out to follow on Instagram. Most things can be anticipated, and the surprises are for the most part surprisingly few – after all, by some stretch the selections stem from me and choices I made.
But then – one picture that does actually come to stand out from the vast majority in this lot, ultimately because it’s seated neither here or there. It appears to be a selfie, where a female figure bears a deformed face; a composition which has blatantly and excessively undergone editing through the sort of filtering and editing apps that is commonplace now in the millennial era of Snapchat. A play with the dimensions of the features entails eyes which have been reduced and are colored neon green, while the nose in contrast has been super-sized. In the background gleams a sandy beach which has been imposed into the image. A halo informing the various colours of the rainbow stresses the figure’s extraordinary character. The author of the post is credited as Cindy Sherman; the seminal and iconic visual artist who is commonly held as a pioneer of “selfies”, although this looks neither like her “selfies”, mine or those of anyone else passing before my eyes on the phone.
Image posted on Cindy Sherman’s Instagram on March 18, 2019. Caption: “I’m ready”. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
Sherman is far from the first artist to take to Instagram. Instagram as we know allows for artists to reach out with their art to a wider audience at their own discretion without crossing the usual institutional intermediaries (galleries, curators, art critics et alia). While certain artists arguably need Instagram and can likely varyingly benefit from it to stay relevant, Sherman would be one who for certain could easily just let it pass, without caring any less. Sherman has been a celebrity in the realm of contemporary art since her break in the 1980s and while others came, left and possibly also came back, Cindy consistently has stayed at the top of her game while nearly traversing into a popular culture figure alongside names like Ai Wei Wei and Marina Abramovic. Her sudden entry into the public eye of Instagram, making her previously private account open, somehow nevertheless was unexpected and prompted coverage in a variety of newspapers and magazines in the US. Since August 2017 Sherman’s feed offers images from her everyday life alongside a puzzling series of “selfies”. I’m curious about the intent and idea behind these images. Could they possibly be considered a continuation and extension of her artistic practice as we have come to know, or do they exist independently? Are they feminist and critical, or just a playful personal way for Sherman to express this still new medium?
Black and white film stills, deformed dolls and psychedelic clowns. For the art aficionado, Cindy Sherman’s name evokes various connotations. What marks most of Sherman's works since her first series, commonly referred to as Untitled Film Stills, in which she embodies characters reminiscent of women from old B-films and the film noir genre, is the act of photographing her own transformed body, whilst becoming both subject and object in her frames. It’s important to note however that she has consistently emphasized that her photographs are not self-portraits. She may use herself as a model, but she always adopts the role of “someone else” to portray. This seems to apply to her Instagram images as well; her own face is used from the outset, but it’s often so manipulated that she’s barely recognizable at all. On Sherman's Instagram, the characters appear mostly to be older women, found in all sorts of different moods and situations. Instead of the usual camera and editing apparatus, Instagram filter and editing apps are used. The images are obscure and marked humour, which is reinforced by her short but poignantly ironic captions.
Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #53, 1980, Gelatin silver print 8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
Amanda Cruz puts forth in the book Cindy Sherman: Retrospective (1997) that there are voyeuristic hints of another person's presence in the Untitled Film Stills, of someone observing the lonely women. Film theorist Laura Mulvey has held the women of these as subjects of the controlling male gaze and as objects of the male desire. According to Cruz, the majority of Sherman's images have imitated and confronted various stereotypical representations of women in mass media.
But whether Sherman is a feminist and her work fairly can be attributed as such has been disputed. In 1981, Sherman photographed a series for Artforum that has later been known as the Centerfolds. The horizontal formats of the images in combination with the characters’ poses make the images reminiscent of pictures in porn magazines. Sherman adopts the role of young women posing in submissive positions, appearing exposed and vulnerable. Cruz notes that he images were criticized by some feminist critics for reinforcing sexist stereotypes, which led even to Artforum’s eventually rejecting the images. A picture of a woman in bed with smeared makeup and messy hair was interpreted by certain critics as depicting a moment of post-rape. Sherman herself protested, addressing that the character simply was seen early in the morning after spending the whole night out partying. Her large production of works has however earned many favorable feminist interpretations over the years. As Eva Respini writes in the catalog for Sherman's major retrospective survey at MoMA in 2012, her work alludes to the male condition of viewing images of objectified women. The big difference is that she herself takes on the role of both the imaginary male photographer and his gaze and the female pin-up before the camera.
Image posted on Cindy Sherman’s Instagram on November 6, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
So, how does this all sit when Sherman instead makes use of the phone's front camera and turns to the “selfie” format? Parul Sehgal writes in the article "The Ugly Beauty of Cindy Sherman's Instagram Selfies" (The New York Times Magazine May 10 2018) that the women in the Instagram images are Sherman's first real protagonists. While the women in her earlier works may be perceived as metaphors or stereotypes, these women are entirely themselves, she stresses. It may depend on the format of the selfie; the condition that the picture is taken by the person herself which it depicts who assumes no one else behind the camera. Most of the characters on Sherman’s Instagram appears to be portraying themselves, allowing the idea that they are in full control of the images. They stand as such in contrast to the characters of Sherman's early works, such as in Untitled Film Stills and Centerfolds, where the women are more passive in relation to the viewer. But the women in the Instagram images are not entirely devoid of all vulnerability in Seghal’s view. Some of them look worn out and tired and can in that light be perceived as vulnerable. Other characters seem at peace and happy; the pictures do in fact show a wide variety of emotions and moods. The vulnerability lies perhaps beyond the mere appearance, in the desperation that underpins the selfie as a social phenomenon. A seeking of confirmation: Look at me, love me, validate me. What Sherman explores here is no longer the representation of women in media, but women's representations of themselves in media.
Seghal still sees the Instagram pictures as rebellious; she thinks of them as the global aging woman's way to command the space she rarely gets. This interpretation is reminiscent of Michelle Meagher's analysis of Sherman's previous work in the essay "Against the Invisibility of Old Age" (Feminist Studies, Vol. 40, 2014). Meagher believes that especially two of Sherman's series of images, called Head Shots (2000) and Society Portraits (2008), deal with female aging. The pictures show women who are desperately struggling to achieve contemporary beauty ideals, which corresponds to the 21th century’s obsession with preserving youthful beauty. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sherman has been approaching the notion of aging, since having entered into her 60’s. In several Instagram images, she seems to have accentuated the wrinkles on her own face. The apps she uses like Facetune, Perfect365 and YouCam Makeup are designed to perfect and make a face more beautiful, but Sherman's approach is the mere opposite. She enlarges and reduces the flawed parts of the face, gives the skin a strange texture or smooths it out excessively. The exaggerated retouching and manipulating of the face can be interpreted as a satirical comment on the lengths we go to portray ourselves on Instagram in a fashion of “heightened reality”.
Cindy Sherman Untitled #585, 2017/2018, dye sublimation metal print 38 x 35 3/4 inches (96.5 x 90.8 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
What does Sherman herself have to say about the images? A few months after the Instagram account was made public, a feature was published in the art issue of W Magazine (November 2017), where she was also invited to create three new images specifically for the magazine, one of which graced the cover of the magazine. “I actually hate the idea of selfies,” says Cindy Sherman while discussing the images she has been making with her iPhone. “People say; Oh, but you're like the queen of selfies. I really kind of cringe at that thought.” In a more recent feature in WSJ Magazine written by Derek Blasberg (October 29, 2019), she says that she thinks selfies can be a cry for help. “I have friends I follow [on Instagram] who I can sort of tell when feeling vulnerable or insecure because when suddenly posting all of these pretty photos of themselves.”
Does this mean that the Instagram images are critical of contemporary society at large? Or is Sherman merely taking aim at women who post selfies on Instagram for self-validation? It’s possible that she’s only trying to understand her contemporaries in society in an exploration of the selfie as a modern-day phenomenon. In the article “Cindy Sherman Put's 30 Years of Photography on Display in New York” (Vice July 27, 2017), Kara Weisenstein points out that Sherman is more of an actor than anything else. She adopts roles, surveying what it means to be human and female. But she doesn’t do this in an angry fashion, but with a strong sense of empathy and elegance.
Cindy Sherman Untitled #212, 1989, Chromogenic color print, 33 x 24 inches (83.8 x 61 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
In the W Magazine feature, Sherman explains that the Instagram images, just like her previous images should not be interpreted as self-portraits, even though she uses herself as a model. In conclusion, there is a claim that Instagram is an act of looking for a new place to take her creativity. She emphasizes that the Instagram images are primarily a way for her to play around, and not at all or nearly on the same level as her exhibited work, while admitting that the playfulness in the photos has affected her way of working; that it has made her a little freer and more open to experimenting. The author of the feature, Andrew Russeth, ironically seems to take the pictures a lot more seriously than Sherman herself. He, like Sehgal before him, characterizes the depicted women as relatable, finding that they arouse strong feelings of empathy in the viewer.
While Sherman’s exhibited work over the years has been consistent in so far the long-standing exploration of representations of women in media, there have also been significant shifts which expand more notably on the past trajectory. Moreover things sometimes come full circle with her returning to notions from before. In the series Fairy Tales (1985), Sherman approaches a realm of the mysterious and surreal for the first time, something that has characterized parts of her body of work ever since. Using theatrical tools such as dramatic lighting, costumes, wigs, dentures and intense colors, Sherman creates images that are both humorous and disturbing. The artificiality is often striking, and in some images, Sherman looks more like a doll than a human. Her subsequent series, Disasters (1986–89), shows many similarities to Fairy Tales. Here the body is defeated and distorted, with her body replaced with dolls. The dolls return again in Sex Pictures (1992) in which she takes another shot at pornography as a subject matter, but in a much more vulgar and humorous way than was the case with the earlier Centerfolds. In these pictures, the dolls too substitute her in order to assume sexual and vulgar positions. In Horror and Surrealist Pictures (1994-96) she expands on the element of horror, where different types of scary masks are used as the primary prop. In her Clowns series (2003–04) she dresses up as a clown, in a series of nightmare-like photographs. Similarities with these series of works can be found in the artificial and often psychedelic features of Sherman’s Instagram images. The mobile apps that Sherman uses might be simplified, but they work effectively and smoothly to create the perverted manipulations and hallucinatory features of the images. But in contrast to Sherman's exhibited work, the artificiality that so often appears in her images is highly accentuated in the Instagram images where the digital manipulation is unmistakable and itself a source for humour.
Cindy Sherman Untitled #413, 2003, Chromogenic color print 44 1/4 x 29 3/8 inches (112.4 x 74.6 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
Instagram has become a distribution tool for art. But above all, it is a place where we showcase ourselves and construct our “personal brand”. It’s a social platform that is largely seated at the border between reality and fiction, merging what’s real and fake about our lives, especially when it comes to the depiction of the self. In that regard it seems to be destined for Sherman's work. The artist herself appears well-aware and takes on Instagram with a great dose of humor and sarcasm. Whether the images are purposefully critical or not, they constitute an unconventional command of selfies that counter conventional aesthetics and narrative techniques that favor the condition of perfection on social media. Perhaps the word really missing here is “anti-selfie”; telling of something both which is but isn’t. More recently, her artistic activity on Instagram has dried out – the everyday images from her life are getting more common than the “anti-selfies”. Just as it started to seem, by a stretch of imagination, that her Instagram images might one day come to leave the iPhone screen and become the survey of an exhibition merging her artistic output in the physical and digital realm, that reality now appears as far-fetched as her presence once was absent to begin with in this medium.
Cindy Sherman Untitled #175, 1987, Chromogenic color print, 47 1/2 x 71 1/2 inches (120.7 x 181.6 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
While other iconic household names in art like Ai Wei Wei and Marina Abramovic are already taking to VR and MR, perhaps Sherman’s somewhat modest and reluctant approach in terms of “merging” into the digital realm is telling of the artist she is. That is, one whose work while blurring reality before the lense, is very much grounded in reality behind it. Sherman still does most of the meticulous work that manifests in what we see at museums and galleries herself, without little aid from others. Factory production could characterize some of her peers but certainly not her. As Sherman herself has made a point of making a distinction between the seriousity of her exhibited work and her images on Instagram, perhaps the dichotomy between connection and disconnection between these genres of images go beyond just visual similarities and rather come down to the physical effort and tangible hands-on work. Thought comes to mind to that one controversial time when James Franco in the last decade surprisingly was allowed a solo at PACE in NYC with a series of work that seemed as much a spoof as a homage of Sherman’s Untited Film Stills. Sherman’s much sought response at the time was simply that she was flattered but that she didn’t know if she could call it art (The Observer April 14 2014). Perhaps the jist there lied in the lack of labor of original authorship which arguably and depending on how staunch one’s view is could be held too about the instant if yet altered snapshots commonly known to Instagram. But ultimately it’s anyone’s guess of course.
Betsy Sussler, ”An Interview with Cindy Sherman”, BOMB, Nr. 12, Spring-Summer 1985, New Art Publications, 1985, s. 30-32.
Ella Saar is a contributor in the editorial team of C-print.