A Hollywood-inspired murder mystery story, a series of characters waiting for the bus and a cut-out doll trying on different clothes: Cindy Sherman’s early works, which date back to 1976 (only months after the then 22-year-old photographer graduated from Buffalo State College) set the mechanics of her working methodology. Throughout her career, the New Jersey-born artist has explored gender and identity using nothing but her own body and a bunch of props. Sherman typically works in series and shoots alone in her studio, assuming multiple roles as author, director, make-up artist, hair stylist, wardrobe mistress and, of course, model. Three of her earliest projects – Murder Mystery People, Bus Riders and Doll Clothes – which have rarely been seen before, are now featured at the Gucci Museo in Florence, giving viewers a taste of Sherman’s trademark aesthetic.
Murder Mystery People tells the story of an imaginary crime movie featuring 17 different characters inspired by stereotypical figures in 1930s Hollywood films. The hard-boiled detective, the Latin lover and the washed-out starlet are here seen through a humorous yet crude filter, as in a photographic game of Cluedo. Although the viewer can see the device used by the photographer to shoot her own picture, Sherman stresses her work is never of a self-portrait nature: “I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself. Sometimes I disappear”. In Bus Riders, Sherman metamorphoses once again, this time into a series of typical everyday characters found riding a bus, wearing an elaborate atrezzo yet sitting in a sparse setting. The boundaries between performance, film and photography become blurred when, by transforming herself through poses and facial expressions, she confers a unique identity to each one of her personas. Although made in 1976, these two projects were not printed or exhibited until 2000.
“I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself. Sometimes I disappear”
Cindy Sherman started documenting her process of “dolling up” for parties when she was still in college, encouraged by her friend and fellow artist Robert Longo. Although she doesn’t like to describe her work as “feminist”, the photographer has often dealt with femininity and gender issues. In 1975, while still in college, she created a stop-motion animated film depicting herself as a two-dimensional cut-out figure escaping her confinement in a plastic folder and trying on a variety of dresses. Doll Clothes also features an oversized hand that grabs the figurine and places her back in her plastic prison: impossible not to think of it as a reflection on the control and power exerted by society and family towards women. “Society is putting her back in her place”, says curator Francesca Amfitheatrof, “it’s extremely endearing and real and honest, but risky as well”. Not long after completing these projects, Sherman moved to New York and began the Untitled Film Stills series that ultimately launched her career. In these earlier works, however, one can already see the makings of a master.
Cindy Sherman: Early Works is at the Gucci Museo until June 9, 2013.
Text by Marta Represa
Marta Represa is a freelance writer specializing in fashion, art, photography and culture.