What ageing means to a woman

An undated handout of a new work by Cindy Sherman, known for being the subject of her own photographic creations.
An undated handout of a new work by Cindy Sherman, known for being the subject of her own photographic creations.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Cindy Sherman has produced a series of photographs about herself coming to terms with getting older

NEW YORK • "Tell me what to do," Cindy Sherman said, asking the photographer for guidance as she sat for her portrait. Her words seem almost comic, since she is posing in her own New York studio, staring out at her camera and the mirror she keeps perched beside it, and the one thing she has proved, across a career spanning 40 years, is that she has known what to "do" in this setting.

She has used that camera and mirror to capture herself playing a vamp and a secretary, a starlet and a matron, a corpse and a clown and other iconic roles which culture has cast women in.

Now, after a sabbatical from the studio "coming to terms with health issues and getting older", Sherman, 62, has produced her first new photos in five years.

They are more explicitly about herself than ever before - images that confront what ageing means to a woman.

In the series, which starts on Thursday at Metro Pictures gallery in New York, she plays the veteran leading ladies of cinema's Golden Age, turning herself into avatars of Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo and others in their twilight years.

"I relate so much to these women," she said. "They look like they've been through a lot and they're survivors. And you can see some of the pain in there, but they're looking forward and moving on."

Her virtuosic acts of self- presentation have won her nearly every reward an artist could want, from a MacArthur Fellowship to shows at the Museum of Modern Art, documenta and the Venice Biennale, and her work has sold at auction for more than US$6 million (S$8 million).

Added to the show this month that inaugurates a remodelled Metro Pictures, the new Broad museum in Los Angeles will this month feature her lifetime's work as its first special exhibition.

Mr Eli Broad, its founder, said he is especially excited to present his deep Sherman holdings to the local audience because of her photos' strong roots in Hollywood.

Those roots are especially clear in her latest images, where she is dolled-up in Jazz Age furs and pearls. And now, as she revealed, her love affair with Hollywood looks set to deepen.

"I want to start playing with moving images and we'll see where I go," she said. So far, she has no idea if that means directing feature films or coming up with video versions of her still photos.

She simply knows that she has grown tired of the stills she has been making for so long: "When I first started this series, I thought 'God, this is the last time I do this.' I'm so sick of using myself, how much more can I try to change myself?"

The big surprise in her recent work is that she has made less of an effort to do so.

Seventeen years ago, she was adamant that the images were not about her: "I use myself the way I would use a mannequin. They're not autobiographical. They're not fantasies of mine. I like to work completely alone, so instead of using models, I use myself."

On top of handling her own lights and cameras, she has always done her own costumes and make-up and hair.

The interview last month took place at a studio table rimmed with 15 wig stands, surrounding piles of false nails.

Back in 1999, Sherman insisted that "I'm under so many layers of make-up that I'm trying to obliterate myself in the images. I'm not revealing anything."

Now she admits to a more "personal aspect" in her images of ageing stars: "I, as an older woman, am struggling with the idea of being an older woman."

She said that when she began this series, she was afraid that "people would say, 'Oh, she's just gone back to the whole idea of the 'Film Stills' again, only these women are older and in colour'."

Those Untitled Film Stills were the 69 black-and-white photos, seemingly of actresses in B movies, that shot Sherman to fame in the early 1980s - and that started out selling for all of US$200. A risk of repetition has obviously been there with each series of images in which she has posed as other women.

With the latest photos, however, she is closer to representing something fresh: Other women standing in for her.

Sherman described a typical movie star from the photos as a woman "who is now maybe in 1960, but she is still stuck in the 1920s, so she's still dressed or coiffed that way".

The work obviously tips its hat to Sunset Boulevard, but without that movie's condescension towards its mature star.

She said she was especially taken with the incongruity she has put into her images: "When you look at the real publicity shots or the images of the actresses from those days, they're all young, of course, and yet these women clearly aren't."

With her pictures of women her own age, she seems to have returned to a tenderness that has not been seen in her work for the last several decades.

She describes the images as "the most sincere things that I've done - that aren't full of irony, or caricature, or cartooniness" since the Film Stills.

It could even be that her mature leading ladies should be thought of as the aspiring starlets of those film stills 40 years on, after they have achieved success and come out the other side.

If Sherman's works have returned to the cinematic themes of film stills, maybe it should not surprise that she is considering a turn to film itself. Although she and her first peers, the Pictures Generation, mostly produced still photos and paintings, film was the "coin of the realm", painter David Salle said in a recent telephone interview. "The grammar of the filmic shot and its ability to encapsulate so much information, was a pervasive influence."

Sherman named her broad survey The Imitation Of Life, after a 1959 melodrama by director Douglas Sirk. In the show's catalogue, she includes a conversation with director Sofia Coppola in which she admits that she might even star in whatever movie she goes on to make next.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'What ageing means to a woman'. Print Edition | Subscribe