For the May, 1993, issue of Harper's Bazaar, Cindy Sherman was given her choice of clothes from the year's spring collection and let loose.
The New Cindy Sherman Collection
The artist photographs herself in a selection of '93 Spring designs, once again creating a cast of unconventional characters. By Jim Lewis
For this month's Bazaar, Cindy Sherman was offered her choice of clothes from among the Spring collections and invited to photograph them in any manner she chose. The results, which appear on these pages, are not fashion photographs but artworks that treat fashion like a dream, with a dream's strange logic and air of allegory.
It's not the first lime fashion and art photography have confronted each other; they make a natural pair, with each seeing in the other a reminder of itself. Both, after all, are fictions that acquire power by disguising themselves as facts--about beauty, about truth, and, above all, about desirability. Each incites the other to tell ever more mannered stories, holding out its own power of illusion as a goad. On the whole, then, the less constrained and more daring the artist's imagination, the fitter the match; so Surrealism, in particular; found a likely subject in the world of high style. At its height, Man Ray and Lee Miller were shooting fashion layouts, and both Joseph Cornell and Jean Cocleau published illustrations in this magazine. From the other side, Elsa Schiaparelli was designing clothes that matched the efforls of her art-world counterparts for drama and sheer eccentricity.
Sherman has a somewhat different aesthetic, but no artist of our time is better equipped to face the designers. It is not, after all, the first time she's taken a common form of picture making and turned it into something unfamiliar, by bringing to the surface everything that the original slyle repressed.
In the beginning she produced whal she called Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), a series of black-and-white photographs that staged scenes of women in imaginary melodramas, with Sherman herself made up to fit the various roles. They were tense, charged images, wilh an uncanny capacity to invoke half-remembered late-night movies.
The Stills had a powerful charm, and they established the artist as one to be reckoned with. But their beauty was so enigmatic and ambivalent that it was hard to tell whether they were meant as comments on cliches of femininity or examples of them. Sherman herself now says that she's uncomfortable with them: "They came too close to the real thing," she allows, and she was after less-conventional forms of visual pleasure. In fact, she says, she was "much more interested in what isn't beautiful, and finding beauty in that." So Sherman began leading her views deeper into the profound and difficult psychology of sexuality, decay, and the grotesque
At first she simply photographed herself in various monstrous guises, wearing a pig's snout, say, or with a massive, ruby-red tongue hanging from her mouth. Then, in her History Portraits from the late '80s, she reimagined Renaissance portraiture in photography, emphasizing the ugliness that the original painters had excised from their canvases. The body of work that followed was at once less pointed and more visceral: She started rooting through medical-supply catalogs, sending away for the artificial body parts upon which doctors-in-training practice surgery, and using them to create unsettling scenarios of dissolution and dismemberment. It was as if she'd taken her studies of the way the body is used to stage a persona and had broken it down into its constitutive parts, an arm's gesture here, a dissociated facial expression there: They were anatomies of fear, desire, disgust, and ecstasy.
The project presented here seems to draw upon everything Sherman has learned to date. To bring out the beauty behind the beauty we see in magazines, she's returned to impersonation; the women on the following pages are all played by Sherman herself-padded, bewigged, made up, and posing before a mirror that she sets beside her camera. The result is a series of tableaux vivants drawn from subconscious memories of movie shots, fashion trends, elements from the history of painting--that mass, consensual hallucination of Western culture that we all carry around in our minds
Sherman's eye for archetype is so sharp that the pictures look right at first. Anyway, one can have a good deal of fun trying to sort out the influences (is that Susie Wong? a Kewpie doll? Medusa?). And then, of course, they look quite wrong: One spots the dirty feet and blackened teeth; the expressions and postures of exhaustion, satiety, or suspicion; the bruised legs and protruding bellies
"I wanted to twist people's minds and then make them question their reactions," Sherman says. So in a way they're fun-house mirrors: Every viewer will bring to them his or her own beliefs about femininity and see them reflected back distorted and transformed, to the point that any approach to beauty seems possible. If the artist is after something more specific, she isn't saying. "I'd rather risk misinterpretation than hit people over the head with a message." The purpose of the pictures, after all, is to allow people to think for themselves: The context is fashion, and the medium is photography, but the goal is a freedom more basic and real than either.