Cindy Sherman’s earliest photographic work displayed her posed tauntingly in sets. Mimicry, mostly of ’50s and ’60s film, they anticipated a voyeuristic response. Then the photographs moved into a more intimate relationship between her and the camera: no costumes or props; but Sherman emoting—loneliness, fear, etc. The next series began when she was asked to work with designer clothes. This led to more garish, almost operatic lighting and costumes and it was not only Sherman emoting but Sherman becoming different personalities.
Betsy Sussler When did you decide to be an actress in your photographs? Do you consider it acting?
Cindy Sherman I never thought I was acting. When I became involved with close-ups I needed more information in the expression. I couldn’t depend on background or atmosphere. I wanted the story to come from the face. Somehow the acting just happened.
BS It was the close-up that forced you into acting?
CS Unconsciously . . .
BS Now when you’re doing it, what are you thinking?
CS I think of becoming a different person. I look into a mirror next to the camera . . . it’s trance-like. By staring into it I try to become that character through the lens. It seems to work out, it sounds like meditation. But something happens that makes it more fun for me because I have no control over it. Something else takes over.
BS How do you decide on the character, or does it matter?
CS Well, the characters sometimes appear while I set up the lighting. I may go through several different lighting situations until I feel some kind of mood or response to it.
BS The mood of the light?
CS And sometimes it’s just experimental. I may look at what I’ve been doing and realize I haven’t used a harsh yellow light so I’ll try that. Then sometimes, arbitrarily pick out a wig I haven’t used in a while.
BS So you choose colors and that suggests atmosphere and then you choose costumes. Is that arbitrary too? I mean you just go around and collect things and make them?
CS Sort of. Lately it’s been these fashions that I was commissioned to use.
BS Those are very interesting photographs. Like the ones you did for Dianne B. where you’ve got your legs up and it looks like you’re masturbating and you’re laughing hysterically. That’s my absolute favorite, the one in red.
CS Well, a lot of that came out of a response to the clothes. I felt forced to use these clothes. I didn’t have a choice.
BS Were you embarrassed by them? Exposed or . . .
CS The clothing, you mean? No, it was just that some of them were so weird. Some of Dianne B.’s stuff was really bizarre; Issey Miyake straw coats with poles that stuck up from the shoulders. The Comme Des Garcons stuff was like expensive bag-lady clothing . . . I was real interested in what the clothing was bringing out of me and some of it was a retaliation against fashion, as well as humor. But to see in magazines what they do with those kinds of clothes—they have this beautiful, skinny model in some tattered-up dress that costs a thousand dollars. I’m not doing anything else for fashion right now, so I’ll just use whatever is in my closet.
BS So you must use your clothes as a diary. Yes or no?
CS Well, no. I used to collect thrift shop clothing and that’s what I used in the B&W’s. But then it was just too much. Some of them I never used; they were just taking up space. Also the time period was too specific. Now I’d rather use nondescript clothes that are maybe more timeless or contemporary.
BS Those everyday clothes were very psychological, but you got back into the props and the costumes after that in a more extravagant way, which gave you more freedom, more range with the acting.
BS I don’t know what you call it if you don’t call it acting.
CS I suppose it is. I’ve never had any exposure to traditional acting so it just never occurred to me. Since the day-to-day costumes I’ve really only done fashion and that’s part of the problem right now. I haven’t really worked just for myself in the last two years.
BS It’s interesting that you have a mirror set up so you can see yourself. You do pick and choose. It’s not technical considerations that inform your editing. Besides, letting yourself go and becoming, do you have some idea of what you want to become?
CS Well, I don’t know what it is.
BS But you recognize it when you see it?
CS I recognize it when I see something I don’t recognize. I’ll do test pictures, maybe a whole roll of film that all looks familiar. Like the same character from another picture or too much like me. When I see what I want, my intuition takes over—both in the “acting” and in the editing. Seeing that other person that’s up there, that’s what I want. It’s like magic.
BS How psychological do you think they get?
CS Some of them I’d hope would seem very psychological. While I’m working I might feel as tormented as the person I’m portraying. (laughter)
BS Not always tormented though. Sometimes you’re a Valkyrie.
CS It’s like acting exercises. I’m trying to cover a range of different emotions.
BS You don’t have a script.
CS Right, right.
BS So there’s no relationship with a text. There’s a relationship between mood and atmosphere.
BS Have you ever thought of taking specific characters, say, out of novels? So there would be a relationship with a text that would be a subtext? Or out of plays and playing with a specific personality?
CS I haven’t. The only time I approached that was with the black and white photographs.
BS That was film. That was still a relationship with visual mimicry rather than a translation from text.
CS Well, I don’t read that much anyway. I’m mostly visually oriented.
BS I think most filmmakers and photographers do think in images.
CS I never thought about thinking in words, I mean I never visualized what form my thoughts took. That’s interesting.
BS Given that you’ve gone through recognition with these characters, did you ever think about developing them? Becoming one of these characters and playing that role for maybe a couple of weeks?
CS I thought about it right in the beginning when I was working on the B&W film stills. The first set of pictures were supposed to be showing the career of one blond actress. I tried to make her look younger or older. I’ve thought about it since as a possible way to deal with one particular look but I think I’d get bored.
BS You don’t use a narrative and your photographs aren’t sequential in that way. They’re very moment oriented which I like. I mean it’s photography as it is. A moment that’s a strand of emotion. There’s a part of us that wants to see that emotion and what happens to it. The fact that that desire gets negated is very nice, actually.
CS People assume that that happens anyway with some of the characters, that one is a young version of another. You could start pairing them off.
BS They’re completely believable and yet there’s no character development.
CS I think people are more apt to believe photographs, especially if it’s something fantastic. They’re willing to be more gullible. Sometimes they want fantasy. Even if they know it’s fake they can believe anything. People are accustomed to being told what to believe in.
BS There’s a connection between the truth of the material and “truth.” Everyone knows that newscasting goes through many different sources before it comes out onto the news. So, it’s true for news. The truth of any substance stops at a certain point and has to come into conflict with other substances. Being an actor is like being a great diplomat.
CS Well, you know you can watch a really disgusting scary movie with blood and guts . . .
BS John Carpenter . . . That’s great, that’s fabulous.
CS One of the reasons I like it is because I know that it’s not real but you can still believe in its falseness.
BS Whereas in the film, Birdy, one of the actors actually went through dental surgery before he did the film because he had to play someone who had been injured in Vietnam.
CS It sounds almost condescending to equate pain from surgery with pain from war.
BS Maybe you’re right. On the other hand, when I saw the film I saw the shots of men sprawled over jeeps and thrown over helicopters pretending they were dead. I mean there has to be some compassion for the people this actually happened to. There’s a certain sophistication to camp which I appreciate and which is true to itself and then there’s a longing for a more sympathetic treatment of the victim and it’s hard. The latter usually ends up being a little too sentimental, condescending and anti-intellectual . . . but I have empathy for both.
Let’s backtrack. When you first started doing artwork, what did you do?
CS Well, it was painting in school, but realistically. I went into photography because it seemed like a fast way to say what you want rather than laboriously making something look real. And here we go again about reality. (laughter) I have never had a very good abstract sensibility. My mind needed organization so when I started photography it was out of a conceptual art vein making projects for myself.
BS What kind of projects?
CS Well, mostly college projects. One of the reasons I started photographing myself was that supposedly in the Spring one of my teachers would take the class out to a place near Buffalo where there were waterfalls and everybody romps around without clothes on and takes pictures of each other. I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to do this. But if we’re going to have to go to the woods I better deal with it early.” Luckily we never had to do that.