Art in America, June, 1997 by Noriko Fuku
Cindy Sherman has been one of the most widely exhibited and discussed artists of her generation. She first attracted attention around 1980 with her black-and-white Untitled Film Stills, in which, employing sometimes elaborate costuming and staging, she assumed a variety of female personas familiar from American and European cinema.
Sherman’s subsequent series have included the large-scale color Rear Screen Projections, the horizontal-format Centerfolds, Fairy Tales, and History Portraits based on motifs from classical painting. Since the mid-1980s, series such as Disasters, Sex Pictures, Horror Pictures and a recent group called Masks have increasingly ventured into the terrain of the surreal or the grotesque.
In late June (1997), the Museum of Modern Art will mount an exhibition of a complete set of the United Film Stills which it has recently acquired. A large retrospective of Sherman’s work will open at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles on Nov. 3 before starting an international tour. Her first film, Office Killer, will be screened in early August at the Locarno Film Festival; a U.S. premiere is tentatively scheduled for fall. The following interviews was conducted in 1996, during the preparation of Sherman’s first full-scale Japanese retrospective, and in February 1997, after the completion of Office Killer.
Noriko Fuku: Let’s talk about your film. Had you ever wanted to be a film director? Cindy Sherman: No. All through the years, people have said, “You should make a film,’ or, “Aren’t you thinking about making a film, because it seems a natural next step?” But I never wanted to work with a crew, since I don’t like to work with other people. I like having full control of what I’m doing. If you’re making a film, you give up control. Which is also why I don’t want to act, because even if one does a really good performance, who knows what would happen with the rest of the film?
NF: Then why did you agree to direct a film?
CS: It was only because one of the producers, Christine Vachon, convinced me that I could deal with just her and tell her what I wanted, and she’d make sure everybody else did it. Also, she already had the money for a horror film. In the back of my mind, I always thought if I ever did a film, it would be a horror film. Because it’s not pretentious and it’s low budget. And if it’s bad, people expect it to be bad anyway, so there’s less pressure. It seemed the perfect thing for me, and I love horror films anyway.
NF: Who is the screenwriter?
CS: We had three people working on it. Initially Elise MacAdams wrote it. I gave her the general idea for the story, and then she worked on a treatment, which is he a short story. She wrote several versions of the script, and then at some point we had the filmmaker Todd Haynes do a version, to work on the dialogue. And another filmmaker, Tom Kalin, worked on the last two or three versions of the script. So it was a collaboration. In the end the script was probably the weakest part of the film, maybe because we didn’t have enough time to work it out. When we started shooting, there were still things about the ending that I didn’t like, so the ending is a little weak. But when it’s low budget, that’s how you have to do it.
NF: How many people worked on the film altogether?
CS: I would say at least 50.
NF: And who was the producer?
CS: There were three groups of producers. Kardena is the company responsible for giving the money, they wanted to do a series of art-house horror films. They contacted Good Machine, which has produced successful independent films like Sense and Sensibility and all of Ang Lee’s films, like Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. Good Machine then contacted Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler from Killer Films, who were the “producers” in the literal sense: they made all the phone calls, figured out the kind of crew to surround me with.
NF: What about the music?
CS: Evan Lurie, from the Lounge Lizards, did the music.
NF: You usually work alone. What was it like to work with a film crew?
CS: It was not the most natural thing in the world for me. The good thing about the way these projects are organized is that everyone has a certain job. In the preproduction part of making the film, you meet with all these people and decide who you’re going to hire and tell them your vision of the film. And if they’re really on your wavelength, knowing exactly what you want, then basically you can trust them. And of course they show you drawings or come to you with props and ask if it’s the kind of thing you want. So it’s a lot of meetings, basically.
NF: Which you do not do normally.
CS: No. But by the time you actually start shooting, all of that’s pretty much organized. Then the director’s role is mainly dealing with the actors, which was the only thing I was really afraid to do. The only way I could approach it was to think, “If I was in their place, what would I do?” So whenever I would try to change what somebody was doing, I would basically just show them.
NF: You acted in front of them?
CS: Yes. Obviously it’s a high-pressure situation, having all these people standing around. Once I got started, I think I just felt I was playing the role of director.
NF: Did you tell the cinematographer which angles to use, whether to make it a long shot or a close-up?
CS: Yes. If I’d had more time, one of the things I would have done in a more complete way is to make storyboards, which I did start but didn’t have the time to really get into. It gives the director of photography an idea of what you’re looking for, what kind of camera angles and what kind of lenses to use. Also, each day before you start shooting, or sometimes the week before, you sit down with the cinematographer and the assistant director and you go over each scene that you’re going to be shooting. You discuss what shots you’ll need and how many shots. So you write these things out and decide ahead of time. But when you’re in the situation with the actors, sometimes things might change. If, for example, one of the actors says, “This is my bad side.” (Laughs)
NF: Did they actually say that?
CS: Jokingly, some people did. But sometimes actors would say, “I don’t think my character would sit here like this,” at which point they’d get up and pace the room. As director I could say, “No, I don’t want you doing that.” It would depend on the situation. Usually, since I’m not experienced at it, I’d basically let them try whatever they wanted, so that sometimes changed what we had planned, too. There was a TV monitor hooked up to the camera, so I could watch what the camera sees. Sometimes, after the cinematographer had set up everything with the lots, I’d say I wanted a new lens, wanted it closer, etc. But there were other times that I’d just let him do his thing, and say, “That looks great.”
NF: Tell me a little about the film’s story.
CS: A woman works for a Consumer Reports kind of magazine, and they’re being downsized. She goes a tittle crazy from it and accidentally kills somebody in the office, and then kills more people. I’m hesitant now to … We had a screening last week. I didn’t go to it, but …
NF: You didn’t go?
CS: I was too nervous, It was a screening for a focus group, arranged by Miramax, who’s distributing the film. They don’t really know how to market it, because it’s not exactly a horror film, and it’s not exactly a comedy, and it’s not exactly an art film. So they put together a focus group. They found a group of people who had all seen Kids, I Shot Andy Warhol, Basquiat and subUrbia. So it was mostly a young male audience, and it was really sad, because in the questionnaires they filled out at the end, in which they talk about the film, they just trashed it! (Laughs) So I suddenly thought, “Oh, gosh, maybe I should warn people. Maybe it’s a terrible movie.” I still like it, but I think some of the criticism was that people were expecting to have more horror than there was, or people who were expecting it to have more humor were turned off by the horror that was there. I can understand why Miramax is a little nervous about what to do with it.
NF: Who’s in the cast?
CS: Carol Kane is in it, Molly Ringwald and Jeanne Tripplehorn. What’s funny about Molly is that this mostly young male audience at that screening had grown up watching her films. Molly is not the lead; Carol Kane plays the killer, who’s the main character. But all the questionnaires said, “We want more Molly.” “Why don’t you have her take off her clothes?” “More cleavage!” Things like that. Really juvenile.
NF: Wrong audience! (Laughs) Unlike your other work, the film has a title: Office Killer. What else is new or different about the film compared with your photographic work?
CS: We didn’t have a title when we were shooting the film. But just to have something to put on the script, they put down “United Office Killer.” Eventually we just took off the “Untitled” and it became Office Killer, because we couldn’t think of a title. It’s just a generic name, but we’re going to use it as a title. I’ve always hated it, but some people like it. What other things are like my photographic work? Oh, I think probably a playful, sick humor. (Laughs) It’s mostly about what this woman does with the bodies after they’re dead. She sort of plays with them and rearranges them. I think it’s really a funny movie, even though it’s occasionally gross. I laugh at the gross parts — also because the way she deals with the gross parts is like, there’s nothing wrong. She doesn’t even notice the bodies are rotting.
NF: So the film is not so much a story about how she kills these people, it’s more about how she treats the bodies. I can see the connection with your other work. Would you make another film, if you had the chance?
CS: If I had more time to think about it, to do the storyboards, to plan it more in my head, I think I would feel more confident going into another film project. This was definitely a rushed situation, I think for all of us. But if I never make another film I won’t be unhappy about it.
NF: Where are they going to show the film?
CS: The last I heard is that they’re going to try to put it into the Film Forum, where there’s more of an art-house crowd. It will have a limited run. How well it does there will determine if it has a life elsewhere. It tooks like now they probably won’t release it until fall.
NF: It’s interesting, because at the beginning of your career, sometimes people couldn’t figure out how to place your work. You created new categories. And now Miramax doesn’t know how to place your film, because it’s not a horror movie, it’s not a comedy, it’s not a whatever.
CS: Yes, that’s true.
Beginnings: Dressing Up
NF: You were born in New Jersey in 1954 and grew up on Long Island. What kind of childhood did you have? Did you own a Barbie doll?
CS: Yes, although I wasn’t obsessed with Barbie. I don’t think I had a Ken or any of Barbie’s friends. I had a lot of different dolls. I think I had Tammy dolls. Actually, the one I really remember — I even made clothes for it, and a house — was a Troll. Do you know what it looks like? It’s ugly, funny-looking, a kind of sexless little doll.
CS: Well, you couldn’t tell if it was a guy or a girl. Its face really didn’t look like either. The body was just plain, and it didn’t come with clothes, so everybody made clothes for them, cutting out felt and gluing it together and making a house for the Troll out of a shoe box. That’s what my friends and I would do.
NF: Did you dress your Troll mainly as a girl or as a boy?
CS: I really never thought about it. I thought it was unisex — like an animal. I used to make paper dolls and make clothes for them. The weirdest thing I remember doing as a child — this was probably as a teenager, when I was going to junior high school — was that I decided I would make paper-doll versions of all of my own clothes. And then, because I was always an organized person, I made a little board with hooks for each day of the school week, and I would plan what I would wear each day and hang up the outfits. So bizarre!
NF: In the mid-’70s you went to the State University College in Buffalo and studied art. Did you study painting?
CS: Yes. I was always good at copying things exactly, so I would copy from photographs and magazines and snapshots, and maybe I’d make a collage from a found image and paint that exactly. Or I would look into a mirror and do a self-portrait, just to get an idea of how a face is put together. It was in the tradition of regular self-portraits, out of the curiosity of studying a face. And I was always a loner. I liked doing things alone in my room, so it was just easier to use my own face.
NF: You still work by yourself, don’t you? Have you ever had assistants?
CS: No, not when I’m working in the studio. Sometimes it would have made it a bit easier — especially when I was doing the fashion commissions, because I had a deadline. It would be convenient if I had somebody doing a light or making up a model while I did something else. But even though I tried it, I don’t really feel comfortable having somebody around.
NF: When did you change from painting to photography?
CS: Although I was good at copying things, I had no idea what I wanted to do with paints. When I was in the first year of college, I took the standard drawing, painting and photography classes. You were required to do one of everything, and I failed my first photography course.
NF: You failed it?
CS: Yes, because I couldn’t understand the technology. This was before automatic cameras, so you were supposed to use a light meter and get the shutter to go with the aperture, and none of that made sense to me. I couldn’t get the idea of the chemical process in the darkroom, of getting a piece of paper, a print, that someone says is perfect.
NF: Did your failure put you off of photography?
CS: No, no. I was required to take the course until I passed, so the next semester I took it again. That time I had a teacher who was less concerned with getting a perfect print. She showed us examples of a lot of Conceptual art and stressed the importance of getting an interesting idea. That seemed to free me. I didn’t even think of worrying about the technological part of it. I had fun. At the same time, I met Robert Longo and a lot of other people who were later involved with the Hallwalls art center. Robert was really instrumental in opening my eyes to contemporary art. In suburban Long Island, where I grew up, I had no exposure to contemporary art. But I hung out with Robert and these other people, going with him to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which is right across from the college, and I learned about contemporary art firsthand. God knows, most of my teachers didn’t expose us to any of it. That’s when I started to question why I should paint; it just seemed not to make sense. Using a camera, I don’t have to spend so much time, hours and hours, copying something that I could take a picture of. I can put the time into the concepts.
NF: Someone told me that one day Longo said to you that if you were going to spend so much time dressing up in front of a mirror, you ought to take a photograph of yourself doing it.
CS: That’s essentially what happened. But it wasn’t as if I was obsessively dressing up to go to dinner or something like that. I was dressing up to become other characters. I would use makeup to try to turn my face into someone else’s face. I don’t really know why I was doing that. I don’t think it was out of frustration or depression. I don’t think I didn’t like who I was, or was trying to be somebody else, It’s more … I was just curious. In my childhood, I used to play dress-up using my mother’s and my grandmother’s clothes, but even then, very often, I wasn’t dressing up to be pretty, I’d try to look like another person. There’s a picture of my girlfriend and me. We were walking around the block where I lived, both of us dressed up like old ladies, just for fun. I would make myself up like a monster, things like that, which seemed much more fun than just looking like Barbie.
NF: Did you ever think of becoming an actress?
CS: No, never, Maybe I was too shy. In high school, I almost did something in a little school production, but it fell through. It was a comedy, and I was going to play an old lady, like Ruth Buzzi on the TV show Laugh-In. Maybe if that show had happened, things would have been different.
NF: You graduated from college in 1976, and the next year you moved to Manhattan. Why?
CS: During the first year after graduation, I stayed in Buffalo and resisted going to New York. I think a lot of it came from a fear that my parents instilled in me. Even though I grew up less than one hour from the city, my parents made everybody in the family think that New York is an evil place where you’re going to get mugged or raped. There was no question of my going to school in the city, which is why I went to Buffalo. I think that was still in my mind; I was still afraid of New York. What finally changed my mind was a combination of two things. I got a small grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, $3,000, which was a lot of money at that time. I thought that would pay for the move. And a lot of artists from New York were coming to Buffalo — to show, to lecture, to do performances or to screen films. Suddenly, once on a visit to New York, it seemed like as small a world as Buffalo. It was a kind of revelation, because when I’d been in college, I thought these artists were like gods and goddesses. And to see them just on the street and at the post office made moving to New York seem like an easy transition. New York is still a small world; you can see Vito Acconci at the grocery store, and it’s no big deal.
NF: Do you think New York has influenced you?
CS: In a way, but probably indirectly. Whenever I go away from New York, the one reason I want to come back is the cross-cultural mix. Every neighborhood is different. It’s really vital and interesting to see all kinds of people, and all kinds of weird people, too. I lived in Rome for almost two months while I was doing the History Portraits. It was a great environment, but after six or seven weeks it really bothered me that everybody looks the same. They wear the same clothes; maybe some of the Italian women dye their hair blonde, but they still all look a certain way. Whenever we saw some tourists who were wearing all black or punks or something different, it was such a refreshing thing. I think New York inspired some of the characterizations in certain pieces of mine. The killer character in my film is, I suppose, vaguely inspired by a cashier in a bank, who’s been there for 20 years, I guess. She’s totally together and intelligent, but she wears makeup in the most extremely bizarre way. But she must look in the mirror and think, “Hey, I look really good!” I love it, and I used that look for the character in the film.
Working Process: In the Studio
NF: What do you think is the difference between painting and photography in general and in your work in particular?
CS: I think there’s much more romanticism to painting, which I envy. I like the idea of going into the studio; I love the smell of paint, and the idea that you paint a little bit every day. Taking photographs is less romantic. I can play with the props, and sometimes I’ll take Polaroids as a test, but there’s no finished product until I’m completely done with everything. I wish I was somebody who could paint watercolors; then I could go anywhere. But I’ve been involved in photography so much that I feel like I don’t understand painting anymore. I find it hard to articulate what I appreciate about a painting or don’t like about it, maybe as a result of having been so embroiled in photography.
NF: Do you do your own processing or printing.?
CS: No. I used to process the film myself, when I used black and white. And up until five years ago, I also used to develop all my color slide film. You can do it in the kitchen sink; it’s very easy. I haven’t done my own printing for probably 15 years. I always liked being in the darkroom, once I got over the phobia of the chemicals and the technology. There’s something magical about putting a blank piece of paper in this solution, and all of a sudden you see something come up. But I pay somebody to do that now and spend my time on other things.
NF: From the mid-’70s to 1979 you took black-and-white pictures, but since 1980 you’ve worked in color.
CS: Actually, 1980 was the last year that I did black and white. I think what made me realize that I needed to move on from the Film Stills series was that I realized I was starting to repeat things I’d done earlier.
NF: But what explains the shift from black and white to color?
CS: Black and white lends such a nostalgic feeling to photographs and I wanted to move on. At first I tested different kinds of film and lighting and gels just to figure out where I could go from there. So my first real experiment with color was using projected slides behind me, to give the illusion that I was outdoors. That was how that series came about, just to make it seem that I was on location without having to be on location. And I just became fascinated with color as a new element. It kept opening up new doors, so that in every series I would say, “Well, I’m experimenting with the lighting now. Maybe I’ll experiment with the make-up and how the color affects that.” And so it grew and grew. At the same time I was occasionally shooting in black and white, because I did miss it. But every time I went back to it, something was lost in the translation. Nothing worked when I went back to black and white. Which is funny, because when I was in the middle of the Untitled Film Stills, I once accidentally put a roll of color film in the camera. So there was one roll shot in color in the Film Stills, but at the time I thought it didn’t work in color it had too contemporary a look, it wasn’t nostalgic.
NF: Photography is so common that it almost penetrates our skin and imperceptibly becomes a part of our being. You challenge and manipulate this aspect of photography on many different levels. Because you take photographs of yourself, is there a danger that photography might become too great a part of your being — that it might take over your self in some way?
CS: No. I divide myself up into many different parts. One part is my self in the country, when I go upstate. My professional self is another part, and my work self in the studio is another. Even when I do something public, like going to an opening or giving a lecture, which I never do anymore, I feel I’m using different parts of myself that I’m totally aware of. I’m not being my natural self, because I’m smiling and saying, “Hi, how are you? I’m glad you like the show.” After a while you feel like your smile is pasted on your face. I don’t really like to get attention.
NF: But because you have chosen yourself as a sitter for your photographs, people are going to pay attention to you.
CS: They’re curious about what I look like. I’m aware of this built-in curiosity about the “real me,” which other artists wouldn’t necessarily have to contend with.
NF: You seem to refer to already existing images in your work. Painters like David Salle also use mass-media images in their works. Is that kind of appropriation similar to what you are doing?
CS: It’s different because they consciously choose things, wherever they take them from. For me, it’s on an unconscious level. When I was doing the Film Stills and the History Portraits, I researched a lot of books and magazines and made mental notes of costumes in certain periods, or poses, or expressions or backgrounds that were used. Once I actually start working, that material comes out more or less intuitively, unplanned. I might have a prop — a magnifying glass, say, that I bought at a thrift shop. I’d build up the character from that one prop, but without having any clear sense of what the final picture was going to be like, other than maybe the period. I’d know that it was going to be a Rembrandt kind of picture or an Ingres-type picture.
NF: So you have the basic idea, but you follow your intuition through the process of creating a work?
CS: Yes. The only pictures I planned were the Bacchus, the big Madonna with plastic tits holding a baby, which is based on a work by a French painter whose name I forget, and one based on a Raphael painting. I think the only reason I did the Madonna was because of the woman who owned the place in Rome where I was staying while I was creating the work. She was one of the Borgheses, and she had loaned me some things that were from her family. One of them was the old gown I used for the Madonna. I don’t know how old the gown was; certainly nobody had worn it in the last century. It was very tiny. I couldn’t get the snaps to close, which is how I got the idea. I already had the plastic, grapefruitlike breasts, which I’d also found in Italy, so when I saw the painting in a magazine or a book, I thought, “Ah, use the dress and the tits, and that will be perfect!” I think the same thing happened with the Bacchus and the Raphael.
Fashion and the Grotesque
NF: In an interview from around 1985, you said, “If I had not been born at this time and place, I would not have been able to use this form of expression, and if I had been a man I could not have created work based on my own experience in this way.” Could you tell us more about “this time and place,” and why being a woman enables you to create this work?
CS: I was referring to being aware of everything going on in the media, which is really what has most influenced the work. If I’d been raised in Africa, I would have had a totally different set of cultural stimuli. Some people say my art is very American — although the Film Stills were influenced more by European films than American films. Even though I’ve never actively thought of my work as feminist or as a political statement, certainly everything in it was drawn from my observations as a woman in this culture. And a part of that is a love-hate thing-being infatuated with make-up and glamour and detesting it at the same time. It comes from trying to look like a proper young lady or look as sexy or as beautiful as you can make yourself, and also feeling like a prisoner of that structure. That’s certainly something I don’t think men would relate to.
NF: In the fashion photographs you made for Dianne Benson and published in Interview magazine in 1983, you seemed to be aggressively rebellious against conventional fashion photographs, which are beautiful, seductive and glamorous. What kind of reaction did you get from Dianne Benson and the Interview editors?
CS: Dianne Benson was very supportive, she loved it all The whole experience was great. The clothes were very inspiring, because they were theatrical. I had never seen Comme des Garcons clothes before, and I thought it was wild that these clothes looked like rags. But at the same time, I couldn’t help thinking how bizarre it was — you know, designers creating these expensive, tattered clothes that were meant to look like the clothes of bums on the street. Sometimes the clothes inspired some of the characters I invented. And I shot a lot. Interview published only four of them, in black and white, even though I was shooting in color, I think it was because of their budget. As a result of that body of work, Dorothee Bis’s company in Paris asked me to do another series for French Vogue with her clothes, and that was a totally different experience.
NF: How was that different?
CS: They were expecting me to do almost exactly what I did for Dianne Benson — these “happy, goofy, funny” pictures. They had me come over, and I chose the outfits, but then they sent me instead a lot of other clothes that were very boring. I didn’t get anything I had chosen, and I was annoyed. I thought, “This is going to be in French Vogue. I’ve really got to do something to rip open the French fashion world.” So I wanted to make really ugly pictures. The first couple of pictures I shot and sent to Dorothee Bis, they didn’t like at all, because they wanted “happy, funny” people. That inspired even more depressing, bloody, ugly characters. It wasn’t a very great experience world for them. I never wanted to do any more commissions after that.
NF: What about the fashion photos you made for Harper’s Bazaar in 1993?
CS: Barbara Heizer, who was an editor there, said, “Do whatever you want to do.” It didn’t even need to have to do with fashion. But I said I wanted to do something with fashion, because that made sense, and they let me pick out whatever clothes I wanted and sent me not only those clothes but a ton of accessories and props as well. It was great! They got me somebody to make these incredibly sculptured wigs that I could use. If I’d wanted, I could have used fashion models and a whole crew, but I said I wanted to work in the way I normally do. They published everything I shot. And then the next year I did some work for Rei Kawakubo.
NF: After those fashion photographs, your work became more grotesque, disastrous and disturbed. What fascinates you about this dark side of human life?
CS: The world is so drawn toward beauty that I became interested in things that are normally considered grotesque or ugly, seeing them as more fascinating and beautiful. Also, I like making images that from a distance seem kind of seductive, colorful, luscious and engaging, and then you realize what you’re looking at is something totally opposite. It seems boring to me to pursue the typical idea of beauty, because that is the easiest or the most obvious way to see the world. It’s more challenging to look at the other side.
NF: I think the grotesque is a tradition of Western art. But it has to be right between funny and scary. I feel the reason I like your work is that it’s not just funny and not just scary, but both.
CS: It’s like horror movies. There’s something you laugh at in them, maybe knowing that it’s all artificial. You feel safe, knowing that the head that’s been chopped off is a piece of plastic, so you can laugh at it.
NF: But for a second, you believe it.
CS: Yes, you also believe it. In horror stories or in fairy tales, the fascination with the morbid is also, at least for me, a way to prepare for the unthinkable. My biggest fear is a horrible, horrible death, and I think this fascination with the grotesque and with horror is a way to prepare yourself psychically if, God forbid, you have to experience something like that. That’s why it’s very important for me to show the artificiality of it all, because the real horrors of the world are unmatchable, and they’re too profound. It’s much easier to absorb — to be entertained by it, but also to let it affect you psychically — if it’s done in a fake, humorous, artificial way. It’s similar to the way I love being terrified by roller-coaster rides, where you’re really scared that you could die, and the adrenaline is rushing, but at the same time you know that you’re safe.
NF: It seems that the more you became intrigued by the dark side of the unconscious, the less you appeared in your photographs and the more you relied on paraphernalia such as dolls.
CS: That didn’t happen consciously. I just simultaneously became bored with using myself. At first, it was a challenge to see if I could make work that was interesting to me without my being in the work. I experimented with using other people, like friends and family, but it didn’t work. It seemed like it was a game to them, “Yeah, we’re dressing up, it’s Halloween!” They were having a good time, and I felt I couldn’t get anything more than that kind of fun feeling from them. I even tried paying models and told them to look more depressed or sad, but maybe I wasn’t a good director. I wasn’t able to push them in the way I could push myself. Many times, as soon as they left and I’d looked at the results, I’d reshoot it with myself. Also, I don’t like to impose on people. When I shot with my stepdaughter, for example, maybe the exposure was wrong. I could have had her come back and do it all over, but I thought, “I’m just going to do it by myself.”
Once I gradually got myself out of the pictures and found that I was still interested in the images I was making, it added a new level of challenge. It was a lot harder to do the work, because I was basically setting up a still life, and I had to know exactly what I wanted from the picture while I was looking through the lens. When I was using myself or any live figure, I had 36 different chances to experiment on a roll of film. You can move your eyes like this, or close your eyes, or turn like this; you’re thinking on camera. You have chance on your side.
Like the hitchhiker [Untitled Film Still #48]. I took only a total of about six shots of the hitchhiker. In the last shot, I happened to stand up. In all five of the others I was sitting down on the suitcase, but in that last one I happened to stand up and look into the distance. That was the one that worked. All the others seemed to be boring.
NF: I was wondering why you’ve been appearing less in your photographs, and I thought, “It must be awkward to take pictures of yourself posing like the dolls in some of the recent pictures.”
CS: (Laughs) Yeah, but people still think I’m in them. That’s so strange: people think my eyes are behind the mask. What’s funny is that in the newest work, the close-ups of a face, some of them are with my face and some of them aren’t. But as soon as I tell people these are the ones with me and these aren’t, they say, “These axe much better. I like the ones you’re in.”
NF: Many people thought you wouldn’t use yourself in your works any longer. Why, in your most recent series, did you come back to using your own body in the image?
CS: It’s easy for me. Sometimes, like in the fashion photos for Comme des Garcons or the Harper’s Bazaar group, I thought, “I don’t want to use myself, I’m sick of it.” But because I was pressed for time, I thought it would be easier if I just used myself. Then, as the Comme des Garcons project proceeded, I gained confidence in using mannequins and dolls. I could be one of those mannequins, only wearing a mask, and I liked it that people didn’t know if I was in the photo or not.
NF: It is very difficult, in the most recent works, to tell whether the images are of you or a mannequin. Is that a chance effect? When I saw your most recent works at Metro Pictures, I asked one of the gallery’s owners, Janelle Reiring, “Which ones have Cindy in them?” Even Janelle said she wasn’t sure.
CS: Because I finally told her, “I’m not going to tell you which ones are me and which aren’t.” Collectors would say, “I don’t want that. I want the other one because she’s in it.” So I said to Janelle, “Don’t tell people,” and she said, “If you don’t tell me, I can’t tell them.” And I said, “Ok, I’m in all of them, if you want to know!” (Laughs)
Sexuality and Censorship
NF: In the History Portraits that you made between 1988 and 1990, it seems as if the women who are depicted are more grotesque and distorted than the men. Is there a difference for you between dressing up as a woman and as a man?
CS: It’s harder to dress up like a man. The challenge is just to look like a man. It doesn’t matter how grotesque it is. as long as I get to that level of looking like the other sex I think I’ve done my job. Whereas for women, since I’m already there, I guess I have to go to a farther place.
NF: When you were making these works, were you already aware of that? CS: No, no, I just realized it right now. With the Film Stills series, I did one roll of film trying to be a man, which didn’t work. I never showed them because they just looked stereotypical and unemotional: “I am a tough guy.”
NF: The body and its politics is obviously a central motif, even an obsession, in postmodern culture. What does the body signify for you?
CS: Perhaps it’s an emotional thing. When you see some faces and figures, you can infer narratives that aren’t really there. You really don’t have to spell them out for the audience. That can be done with still life or landscape, too, but it’s easier with the human figure. You get a quicker response from the viewer, because you can identify with that person. And I’m just interested in people, the way people look and dress and act. What I’ve always noticed is that anything visually abstract is very difficult for me, so I always tend to go toward realistic visuals. Even some of the rotting food pictures are still recognizable, although they’re slightly more abstract. I’m not really interested in the photography that’s all about planes, colors and shapes.
NF: Your works are all untitled and numbered.
CS: I want all the clues to what’s going on in the pictures to be visual. I thought if I titled them, people would start to see what I was seeing in the picture. I like the idea that different people can see different things in the same image, even if that’s not what I would want them to see. Especially with the Centerfold pictures, I got a lot of criticism from feminists who said I was promoting negative stereotypes of women as victims. Or with the one of the woman in black sheets lying in bed [Untitled #93], someone said it looked like it was from True Detective magazine, that it was trying to make some woman who’d just gotten raped look sexy. To me, the whole inspiration for the picture was somebody who’d been up all night drinking and partying and had just gone to sleep five minutes before the sun rose and woke her up. So it bothered me at first when people criticized the picture, seeing the side that I hadn’t intended. I finally decided it was something I had to accept.
NF: If you had titled it Hung Over at 5 A.M….
CS: It would lose all the drama. I think that part of the drama is that people don’t know whether she’s hung over, or is that a bruise on her face? It adds a bit of mystery. Some people are really good at titles. Occasionally I’ll read a review of somebody’s work and the titles are great, and even though they’ve given the work a title, it’s still ambiguous and mysterious. But I’m not really good with words. If I were to give something a title, it would probably be boring and descriptive, so it’s better untitled.
NF: Although an art critic once said you were a “sexual terrorist,” in reality you don’t take photographs of penises and vaginas. They’re pictures of fake props, which you’ve mostly obtained from medical suppliers.
CS: Yes, all of them.
NF: So strictly speaking, the pictures cannot be considered to be pornography. That’s one of the reasons why, as a curator, I thought your work might add some complexity to the legal controversy in Japan, where censorship is tougher than in America. I thought the work might challenge the Japanese public and professionals. And since you are challenging taboos, conventional values, moral judgments, our unconscious and even our ability to “see things,” I would like to know a little more about your intentions with the so-called sex pictures.
CS: They respond to a lot of things going on, including the controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts and the whole issue of censorship. On the one hand, I felt that if artists have to worry about the content of their work in order to get shown in a museum that’s funded by the NEA, then I’m going to do the opposite: I’ll make work that could never be funded. Having had some success, I could afford to take that risk. And it’s also a challenge. Since the mid-’80s, when I started using fake tits and fake asses that I found in novelty stores, I thought that the next level would be much more explicit nude pictures. And certainly people have asked me, “Why don’t you do nudes?” Frankly, I have no interest at all in “real” nudity in my work or any other artist’s work. It never occurred to me, though, that I could just go to a porno shop and get a dildo. It was years later when I finally came upon a medical catalogue, and suddenly I thought, “Wow, this is perfect, I can get all the parts I want and play with them.” But I wasn’t really interested in showing traditional sex; the most obvious thing to do with the mannequins would be to “put these parts together and do a close-up.” I was more interested in using the sexuality of loaded images to say something even greater than that sexuality. One wall that was great to smash into and bounce off of was Jeff Koons’s pictures of himself and Cicciolina, which were, of course, his way of trying to be sensationalistic. I wanted to make something terrifying in response to that. I usually don’t even like to bring up his name, especially with this work. I can’t stand to give him even that much credit.
NF: Has your work aroused censorship in America?
CS: No, I don’t think so. But I wasn’t surprised when Metro Pictures felt they should put up a warning label for kids.
NF: You mean the sign at the exhibition of the Sex Pictures that read, “Parents might want to view the works inside before letting their children see them.”
CS: Yes. But on the other hand, I suppose it did surprise me. It still surprises me to hear the work talked about as pornographic, because there’s nothing really going on in any of them, even any erection. But I know that our culture is very repressed. I’m a product of it. and I’m aware of my repression. I don’t want to be nude in any of the pictures, because any work is not about revealing me on any level. Why would I want to show my real breasts? It’s much more interesting to show a fake body and a fake face.
NF: What kind of reactions did you get to your recent exhibition in Japan? Did Japanese people respond differently from an American audience?
CS: The only consistent question that came up had to do with my using ugliness and exploring that side of things. It made me understand how in Japanese culture everything is so much about being perfectly beautiful and simple, so much about the esthetic of even the smallest thing. I could understand why there might be some confusion about why I want to explore this other side.
NF: How did you answer those questions?
CS: I think there’s more to beauty than what we traditionally think of as beautiful. Things that are not considered to be pleasant to look at or think about can be just as interesting. I think the things I make are beautiful in their own way, It’s just a different sensibility.
NF: Even in Japan criteria of beauty change. In the Heian period, for example, a particular kind of face, with big cheeks and narrow eyes, was considered very beautiful, Now it’s not. Today it’s the narrow Western face that’s considered beautiful. It’s interesting to make people aware of that, because in Japan people tend to think there has been no change. At one of the planning meetings I attended in Japan, somebody said, “I don’t want to show this particular work of Cindy’s.” I asked why and was told, “It’s not pretty.”
CS: (Laughs) Which image was that?
NF: The old lady in white hair.
CS: The one from the Sex Pictures?
NF: Yes. I was shocked to hear that remark, because a lot of issues are concentrated in that one picture: age, sey, beauty, ugliness. Did you know that two pictures were rejected for the exhibition by the Japanese customs officials? That one, and the picture of a penis that looks like a nose with snot.
CS: I’m surprised that the customs people figured it out. (Laughs) That’s pretty good observation.
Noriko Fuku is a writer and independent curator based in New York. She was one of the organizers of the 1996 Cindy Sherman retrospective that toured Japan; an earlier version of this interview appeared in the exhibition’s catalogue.