As part of the assessment period preparatory work for Informing Contexts we were asked to look at a case study on Cindy Sherman and respond to the questions.
Questions for reflection.
- How do you feel about this more inclusive and anti-intentionalist approach to producing work?
Sherman’s self-portraits call attention to female stereotypes. Berger Ways of Seeing addresses this topic. I question whether Sherman’s work is anti-intentionalist. Is that even possible as a photographer? Sherman goes to great lengths to create costumes, do make up and create sets or find locations. Are these not all done with intention? Whether she admits it or not she is trying to depict a particular thing with each photo and with that is an intention however conscious or subconscious that might be to communicate something to a viewer. To be truly anti-intentional one would have to close one’s eyes and take random snaps, do no editing and publish whatever came from the camera. Otherwise there is always some level of intention in a photographer’s work.
- Do you give your viewers this openness of interpretation and do you think Sherman is successful in this regard?
My work is predominantly documentary in character and focused on landscapes and nature. When humans are included it is usually to show how they interact with a place and what is around them. Because I am not generally trying to impose an interpretation, and more importantly, because interpretation is almost solely in the realm of the viewer regardless of the photographer’s intention, I would argue my work is open. Sherman, I suppose does succeed to a degree as there are those who argue her work is feminist and challenges the stereotypes by which women have been viewed, while others argue that her work reinforces those stereotypes. I think though because she is the model it is difficult to argue her work is exploitative of women. I do find it difficult though to understand how she can claim no intention as I discussed above as her work is among the most intentional I can think of, and seems that it must have some purpose beyond a decades long documentation of her ‘performance art’.
- With respect to the Brisbane exhibit: How do you feel the curators theoretically position her work, and how do you respond to this work being shown in a gallery context?
The curators state Sherman is a conceptual photographer not concerned with technical aspects of photography but rather with using photography as a tool to tell a story. The also state her work is an exploration of how identity and imagery are constructed. It seems to me entirely appropriate that this work is presented in a gallery, because it is only there, or perhaps to a lesser degree in a large format book, that one can see and experience the body of work and appreciate the photographs in relation to each other. The tie in to films and their relation to Sherman’s work was another important curatorial move that brings more context to the show. It is also interesting as Sherman’s work is essentially performance art and she as the central character in this decades-long effort are captured like single frames from a film and subsequently displayed on the wall as a series of frames from that movie of her life as a photographer.
How is the intent of the work achieved in the way the photos are presented?
If one of the intentions is to show the effects of ageing, then the sequential display of work is able to accomplish that effectively.
Are there paradoxes for you?
As discussed above the whole intent bit seems to me paradoxical. Also I cannot resolve whether the work chips away at or reinforces stereotypes and I suspect that it will continue to be interpreted both ways depending on the biases, filters, and the personal and cultural experiences each viewer brings to their viewing of her work.
- Do you read Sherman’s work as feminist?
I do not. There is no questioning she is clever woman who has parlayed a theme into a career. Her allusions and tributes to a bygone era of cinema are brilliantly done for the most part, but they do not strike me at all as standing for women’s rights or in any way attempting to break stereotypes. One might argue by making contemporary photos in a style and with sets and costumes reminiscent of the past and with the grandeur of the early work of Cecil Beaton makes a statement about how different things are now, but I don’t think it is a very substantive argument. It is for me egocentric performance art and it does that very well.
- Do you invite any critical or theoretical lenses by which to consume your work and are multiple readings possible?
I guess in a way I hope not on the question of critical or theoretical lenses. I think of my work as being simple expressions of places at a particular time, and frequently including the beings that inhabit those places. The intent is mostly to present a view that may not be readily accessible to most of the viewers of my work, whether that comes from seeing the dynamics of a bird on wing or breaking free from the from or returning to the bounds of earth, or the details of a plant or insect not visible to the naked eye, or a landscape with visual interest. Will that stop someone from trying to apply a critical lens; probably not. It is just that all too often doing so causes far more to be read into work than was ever intended by the photographer.
Can these photos be read in multiple ways? Of course, as I stated earlier, the reading of every photograph is subject to the limitations of the cultural and personal experiences of the viewer and while in some cases the standard deviation in interpretation may be smaller than others, each person will have their own take on any work put in front of them.