‘Little girls dress up – but I always wanted to be a monster instead of a fairy’

I posted a mirror selfie on Instagram last night, I say to Cindy Sherman. There were so many things to consider. Was the lighting and angle fair? Did I get on my good side?

She laughs. “It’s amazing,” she says, “this whole tradition of taking a selfie in a mirror. You can see how someone is touching him, the way he’s holding the camera. There can be different outfits every day, but you are always a lifter. In a sense it is a conceptual photography project. It’s funny.”

It’s a strange experience, discussing the pitfalls of thirst with the woman in charge. We meet at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece, where an exhibition of Sherman’s earliest works has just opened. It’s 40 degrees and humid – even the Acropolis is closed for the evening. But sitting across from me in a showroom, the 70-year-old is effortlessly cool and elegant. She wears a white Loewe T-shirt, white shorts and Prada shoes, her silvery hair pulled back into a low ponytail. She is soft-spoken, kind and much friendlier than you would expect from someone of her level of success.

To say that Sherman has redefined portrait photography is an understatement. Her signature practice – transforming herself into characters from saints and imperile secretaries to grotesque clowns and elderly “ladies of lunch” (functioning as makeup artist, hairdresser, stylist and director) – influenced numerous contemporary portraitists. She says that her pictures are “lies”, and that she is constantly trying to “destroy” herself in order to adapt stereotypical female characters from television, film and advertising.

Selfie culture can harm young minds

Which is not so far from social media, I say. Are we all projecting a distorted image these days? “Technology is definitely changing the world right now,” she replied. “I can’t imagine growing up with social media. It must be very difficult for a young person to navigate all of that without being so self-conscious. Everyone is now a content creator or wants to be an influencer.”

The exhibition, Sherman’s first in Greece, brings together more than 100 of his earliest works. Her seminal series Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) includes many black and white photographs inspired by 50s and 60s Hollywood, film noir, B-movies and European art cinema. Sherman drew herself to the memory of librarians, hillbillies, seductresses and more. It is Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe and Anna Karina – although its heroines never have names, united only when they refuse to follow convention.

In a series from 1980, Rear Screen Projections, she imitates a technique used by filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock (as a child she watched Rear Window 10 times in one week) – herself and her shooting backgrounds separately and stitching the two images together. .

“I was more influenced by film than by the visual arts,” Sherman recalls of her early practice. “I was thinking: ‘Why would she be in that situation, doesn’t she know it’s dangerous?’ It was also a way of dealing with being a vulnerable young woman and moving to New York, feeling the loneliness and terror of a big city. It was a way to play for confidence.”

Sherman was raised on Long Island. Her father was an engineer for the Grumman aircraft corporation, and her mother was a teacher. She studied art at Buffalo State University, where she overcame her shyness. She would go out in character, and stand quietly in the corner of the party wearing thrift store clothes and makeup. It was after her then boyfriend suggested she document her transformations that her unique artistic voice began to emerge. She found photography to be “much faster” and conceptual than painting.

So she moved to New York at 23, and over the following years continued to use styling, prosthetics and technology to question women’s identity and women’s roles in society. She embodies so much character that the real Chindy Sherman has a light mystery to it. In 2012, when MoMA hosted a retrospective of her work, various attendees thought they saw her there in disguise – one said she was in wire-rimmed glasses, another believed she appeared in a fat suit.

“It wasn’t entirely true, but it was really interesting to me,” she says, laughing.

Where did her desire to dress up come from, I ask? “It has a lot to do with my upbringing as the youngest of five children,” she says with the easy self-awareness of someone who has been in therapy. “There was a gap of nine years between me and the next child, and 19 years between me and the eldest. I realized that my family had a whole other life ahead of me. It was like a myth to me.

“Ultimately I felt like maybe they didn’t want me the way I was, so I should try to be someone different. There were lots of little girls back there playing dress up. But instead of wanting to be a princess or a fairy, something cute and feminine, I always wanted to be a monster, a witch or an old woman.

The exhibition comes at a time when Greece is suffering from a spike in violence against women. In response, the museum – which has famous marble figures from the 3rd Millennium BC that scholars have interpreted as manifestations of female divinity associated with fertility and rebirth – wanted to see how Sherman critiqued the representation and treatment of women in society. to clarify.

Whether it is the Color Studies series, which shows women in private moments, or Centrefolds, which refers to erotic images from men’s magazines, her photographs center the female body. This was sometimes divisive. Because the women in Centerfolds appear melancholy, vulnerable, or fearful, New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz described them as “the sexiest, most non-sexual pictures ever”, and some feminists criticized them as mean.

“I see my work as feminist but I don’t see it as pushing a message over somebody’s head,” says Sherman. “It’s subtle, because I’m a subtle person. I don’t think I would be a good advocate to debate with anyone. I’m very bad at quoting things or quoting whatever someone’s opinion is. That goes to why I leave the pictures untitled. I think everyone is going to interpret things differently, and I can’t control how someone’s background in art history will affect my work.”

However, the debate over Sherman’s work informed her. In 2011, Untitled #96 from Centrefolds sold at auction for $3.89m – making it the most expensive photograph ever at the time. She has also received numerous awards including a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant”.

Does she think the representation of women in the media has improved? “I think women are more aware of their place in society, and their rights and power – or lack thereof,” she says. “They’re also a bit more aware of how our looks are controlled; how we try to conform to what society expects of us. But it’s hard to know. The whole selfie culture – and the selfie tools that automatically correct your skin tone or get rid of eyebrows – can damage young minds as they try to figure out their place in society.”

But Sherman likes to play with some of these tools herself. In recent years, she has been posting Instagram portraits using apps and AI to distort her features. She looks pretty weird in all of them, a fitting comment on the dissociative nature of social media. “I love it, really. But now I’m a bit frustrated because whenever I tried to make a new image for Instagram, I feel like it’s not new enough.”

I tell her it’s both funny and scary that she had to go through a whole styling process herself, and now she can just push a button. Is she worried about the threat of AI?

“I can definitely see the potential threat, especially with those deep fakes. But whenever I type something like, ‘Middle-aged woman, alone in a forest, Cindy Sherman style’, what they come up with doesn’t threaten me so I laugh at it. It’s a bad version of my work. But some of the faces I created from AI are amazing. It helps me think differently about what is possible.”

These days, Sherman is trying to figure out his “next steps.” “I don’t feel like I’m going to retire, but getting older changes work,” she says. “When I was younger I could play both young and old characters, now my range is limited.”

She has gone through many iterations, not only professionally but also personally. She was married to video artist Michel Auder for 17 years (when he was struggling with heroin addiction), before hooking up with film maker Paul HO and musician David Byrne. Today, she is enjoying the sights of Athens with her new partner.

Which reminds me, did she listen to Billy Bragg’s song about her, Cindy of a Thousand Lives? “Yes, I was very pleased, especially since we had never met. But I think we’re all made up of slightly different lives.”

And with that, we take a selfie together, and say goodbye.

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