ARTS / Show People: Through the looking glass: Cindy Sherman

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The Independent Culture
'I'VE TRIED collaborating,' sighs Cindy Sherman, 'but I'm not very argumentative so I end up agreeing to whatever the other person wants. Even if I hired a model or an assistant, I'd end up feeling I had to look busy for their benefit . . . I'm happiest when there's nobody here but me.'

So it is that Cindy Sherman has become famous. She's the photographer who appears in nearly all her own photographs. Her huge colour images - distinguished by dramatic lighting, bizarre subjects and innovative camera angles - create a disturbing vision of contemporary America, and have made Sherman one of the most talked-about photographic artists working today.

By turns witty, moving and provocative, these potent images of women, from B-movie starlets to Old Master models, have been seized upon as feminist icons. Sherman's happy to play along, but insists: 'It's never planned out. I just get dressed up and it all clicks when I don't recognise myself in the mirror.'

She lives in New York's SoHo with her husband, the French video artist Michel Auder. Here she spends months at a time locked away in her studio, trying different costumes, recreating sets and losing herself in a character. If this makes her working methods sound like a grown-up version of a children's game, she is in no hurry to deny it.

Cindy Sherman was born 38 years ago in New Jersey, the youngest, by several years, of five children. Much of her childhood was spent playing happily alone in her bedroom, making clothes and cardboard houses for her Barbie dolls - and dressing up. 'I remember having an old suitcase filled with my sisters' old prom dresses, so sometimes I'd put on my mother's high heels and try to look pretty. But at some point I became more interested in trying to look scary. And when I found some of my great-grandmother's clothes they seemed to me more like a real costume. So I tried to look like my great-grandmother - like a real old woman.' She dismisses the suggestion of psychological motivation, though: 'It wasn't about being lonely or wanting a friend. It was about wanting to change the angles of my face to become someone else.'

She hadn't intended to become a photographer: at art school in Buffalo, upstate New York, in the mid-Seventies, 'I failed the course first time because I couldn't get the technique . . . I couldn't grasp the idea of F-stops, developing the film . . . all that.' But when a new tutor pointed out that the content of the image was as important as technical ability, she was hooked.

Her first one-woman show, in 1981, introduced a series of Untitled Film Stills which had her playing a variety of B-movie parts. It was an instant success, and the collectors started buying. Subsequent series have covered models (Centerfolds, 1981), fashion (Fashion, 1983-84), horror (Disasters and Fairy Tales, 1985-89), Old Masters (History Portraits, 1988-90) and sex (Sex, 1992). The collectors continued buying: her photographs now sell for as much as dollars 16,000. 'Through a photograph you can make people believe anything,' she says. 'Some people just use a camera to document what they see. But I think it's more interesting to show what you might never see.'

But what you will never actually see in her pictures is the real Cindy Sherman. She is at pains to point out that her photographs are not self-portraits. 'While I'm constantly reacting to influences around me, my pictures are not about my fear or my sexual fantasies.' She's certainly pretty down-to-earth in person - a world apart from the characters that leer and pout in her photographs. She has boyishly short, fair hair and the kind of clean, wide-eyed good looks that make-up artists dream about. And she uses them to advantage, with wigs, facial padding and extensions. A master of disguise she can be drop-dead glamorous in one frame and hideous in the next.

In Sex she produced an explicit series of pictures to express her feelings about pornography and censorship in the arts. For the first time, Sherman herself was not in the pictures; indeed they might never have been made had she not discovered the existence of artificial, medical body parts. Always searching for weird props, she'd already made use of false breasts and buttocks in Disasters and Fairy Tales. This grand guignol series attempted to express the 'feeling of fear' generated by horror films and the grimmest of fairy tales. Powerful and disturbing, the series described 'a more apocalyptic vision of the world. I think it reflected my feelings about the art world at the time.'

She's referring to the overwhelmingly favourable reaction to the Untitled Film Stills and Centerfolds series - powerful images that are none the less easy on the eye. 'I guess it suddenly seemed too easy,' she says. 'I felt I should have to work harder for my art.' And yet even at her most accessible, she's never out simply to entertain: 'I've always wanted to make images that would make people feel very uncomfortable.'

Comfortable or not, it seems that whatever Cindy does, sells. So what will she do next? Last year she modelled clothes for Harpers Bazaar (in disguise, naturally). Now she's shooting a series of images for Comme des Garcons. 'Yeah, I'm just a commercial artist right now,' she laughs, 'but I get to use the costumes in my own studio and the money's pretty useful.' And might she ever change the habit of a lifetime by photographing a famous name? (Jamie Lee Curtis, for one, is a great fan.) 'I dunno, it could be fun,' she almost enthuses, 'you know, maybe something great could come out of it - but, it could be really horrible.'

Cindy Sherman is the subject of an 'Arena' documentary, 'Nobody's Here But Me', 11.05pm Sun 24 April, BBC2.

(Photographs omitted)