Cindy Sherman in the era of the selfie

24 June 2019

The RPS Journal

With the launch of a major retrospective on the work of Cindy Sherman, Bernadette Wegenstein asks how relevant the photographer is today


What does it mean to see ourselves today? 

In an age in which America’s Next Top Modelis evaluated by social media judge Bryanboy counting and measuring the ways fans see themselves represented in the photos of the competing models 👩‍👩🏻‍👩🏾‍?

In an age in which robotics artist Tony Lugo creates an AI figure that sees itself seeing and takes selfies of itself with an algorithm that mimics the behaviour of itsparents – the software couple Matlab and Python? 

In an age in which my Austrian psychiatrist uses emojis to represent himself thinking 🤔 just to make me laugh and keep me going? 


Untitled #413 by Cindy Sherman, 2003 / Metro Pictures, New York


Let’s turn to Cindy Sherman, the subject of a major retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, London, to find the answers. Because she has them today, and she had them 40 years ago. 

Whether in her iconic analogue Untitled Film Stills series (1977-80), or her hyper-realist digital Untitled series from 2016, Sherman presents to us the strange, uncanny and inexplicable encounter with our self. Paradoxically, perhaps, her portraits are testimony that we will never truly ‘see’ ourselves, despite a human history of imaging technologies that promises to enable just that. 


Untitled Film Still #17 by Cindy Sherman, 1978 / Metro Pictures, New York


This is perhaps the most important aspect of Sherman’s commentary on the age of the selfie. We – particularly women and all others who have not been born into the normative realm of representation – have always lived in that age, where access to our most intimate identity must be filtered by the sedimented generations of media, from cave drawings to moving images to smartphones, in which we display our selves and our secrets. 

As Christiane Paul, the curator of Histories of the Digital Now – which showed at Whitney Museum of Art in New York this year – said, we have entered into a ‘post-digital’ phase of art, where artworks are ‘conceptually and practically shaped by the internet and digital processes, yet often manifest in the material form of objects such as paintings, sculptures or photographs’. 


Untitled #92 by Cindy Sherman, 1981 / Metro Pictures, New York


Sherman’s latest series of photographs, while digitally produced, actively search for the existential human experience of being others to ourselves, and hence profoundly alone. Paradoxically, the presence of the vibrantly coloured digital flesh in her Untitled series, against the backdrop of a constant availability of external gazes of approval, makes this loneliness even more palpable than even her acclaimed analogue series. 

But, as Sherman's photographic performances then and now show, this is no reason for sadness. Not being fully represented, whether in the cave or on the screen, means that the search – for who we are, who we want to be – can and will go on.  


Bernadette Wegenstein is a documentary filmmaker and director of the Center for Advanced Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University, USA

The retrospective exhibition Cindy Sherman is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 27 June-15 September. Read more about Cindy Sherman in the June issue of the Journal. For a sample issue of our award-winning magazine please click here