‘Little girls dress up – but I always tried to be a monster instead of a fairy’

I posted a mirror selfie on Instagram last night, I tell Cindy Sherman. There were so many things to consider. Was the lighting and angle flattering? Did I capture my good side?

She laughs. “I find it fascinating,” she says, “this whole tradition of taking a selfie in a mirror. You can see how someone poses, how they hold the camera. There can be different outfits every day, but you’re always in the elevator. In a way, it becomes a conceptual photography project. It’s funny.”

It’s a bizarre experience to discuss thirst traps with the woman who invented the selfie. We meet at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece, where an exhibition of Sherman’s earliest works has just opened. It’s 104 degrees and humid—even the Acropolis is closed for the afternoon. But sitting across from me in an exhibition space, the 70-year-old is effortlessly cool and elegant. She’s wearing a white Loewe T-shirt, white shorts, and Prada shoes, her silver hair pulled back in a low ponytail. She’s soft-spoken, kind, and far more easygoing than you might expect from someone with her level of success.

To say that Sherman has redefined portrait photography is an understatement. Her signature practice—transforming herself into characters ranging from saints and endangered secretaries to grotesque clowns and elderly “ladies who lunch” (acting as her own makeup artist, hairdresser, stylist, and director)—has influenced countless contemporary portraitists. She says her photographs are “lies” and that she is constantly trying to “erase” herself by appropriating stereotypical female personas from TV, film, and advertising.

Selfie culture can be damaging to young minds

That’s not so far removed from social media, I say. Are we all projecting a distorted image these days? “I definitely think technology is changing the world right now,” she replies. “I can’t imagine growing up with social media. It must be really hard for a young person to navigate that without feeling so self-conscious. Everyone is a content creator now or wants to be an influencer.”

The exhibition, Sherman’s first in Greece, brings together more than 100 of her earliest works. It includes her groundbreaking series Untitled Film Stills (1977–80), which comprises dozens of black-and-white photographs inspired by 1950s and 1960s Hollywood, film noir, B-movies, and European arthouse cinema. Sherman captures herself by evoking librarians, hillbillies, seductresses, and more. She is Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, and Anna Karina—though her heroines never have names, united only by their rebellious refusal to follow convention.

In a 1980 series, Rear Screen Projections, she imitated a technique used by filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock (as a child she watched Rear Window ten times in one week) – filming herself and her background separately, then pasting the two images together.

“I was more impressed or influenced by movies than by art,” Sherman recalls of her early practice. “I thought, ‘Why would she be in that situation, doesn’t she know it’s dangerous?’ It was also a way of dealing with the fact that she was a vulnerable young woman moving to New York, and feeling that awkwardness and anxiety of a big city. It was a way of feigning confidence.”

Sherman grew up on Long Island. Her father was an engineer at Grumman Aircraft Corporation, her mother a teacher. She studied art at Buffalo State University, where she struggled with shyness. She would go out in person, standing quietly in the corner of parties in thrift store clothes and makeup. It wasn’t until her then-boyfriend suggested she document her transformations that her idiosyncratic artistic voice began to emerge. Photography, she discovered, was “so much faster” and more conceptual than painting.

So she moved to New York at 23, and over the next few decades, she continued to use styling, prosthetics, and technology to explore female identities and women’s roles in society. She’s embodied so many characters that the real Cindy Sherman has become something of an eccentric mystery. In 2012, when MoMA hosted a retrospective of her work, several visitors thought they’d seen her in disguise—one said she was wearing wire-rimmed glasses, another believed she’d arrived in a fat suit.

“It was absolutely not true, but I found it fascinating,” she says, smiling.

Where did her desire to dress up come from, I ask? “It really has to do with being the youngest of five children,” she says with the easy self-awareness of someone who’s been to therapy. “There was a nine-year gap between me and the next kid, and 19 years between me and the oldest. I realized my family had a whole different life for me. It was like a myth to me.”

“Eventually I felt like maybe they didn’t want me the way I was, so I had to try to be someone else. A lot of little girls played dress-up back then. But instead of trying to be a princess or a fairy, something cute and feminine, I was always trying to be a monster or a witch or an old lady.”

The exhibition comes at a time when Greece is facing a rise in violence against women. In response, the museum – which also houses famous marble statuettes from the 3rd millennium BCE, which scholars interpret as depictions of a female deity associated with fertility and rebirth – wanted to show how Sherman has criticized the way women are depicted and treated in society.

Whether it’s her Color Studies series, which shows women in private moments, or Centrefolds, which references erotic images from men’s magazines, her photographs put the female body center stage. That has sometimes caused division. Because the women in Centerfolds look melancholic, vulnerable, or anxious, New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz called them the “most unsexy sexy pictures ever,” while some feminists condemned them as titillating.

“I see my work as feminist, but I don’t see it as a message that’s being hammered over someone’s head,” Sherman says. “It’s subtle, because I’m a subtle person. I don’t feel like I would be a good advocate to debate with someone. I’m really bad at quoting things or quoting anyone’s opinion. That has to do with why I leave the pictures untitled. I think everyone’s going to interpret things differently, and I can’t control how someone’s background in art history affects how they see my work.”

Nevertheless, the debate surrounding Sherman’s work made her a sensation. In 2011, Centrefolds’ Untitled #96 sold for $3.89 million – making it the most expensive photograph ever sold at the time. She has also received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant.”

Does she think representations of women in the media have improved? “I think women are more aware of their place in society, and their rights and power – or lack thereof,” she says. “They’re also a little bit more aware of how our appearance is policed; how we try to conform to what society expects of us. But it’s hard to know. The whole selfie culture – and the selfie tools that automatically correct your skin tone or remove blemishes – can be damaging to young minds trying to find their place in society.”

But Sherman herself has been playing with some of these tools. In recent years, she’s been posting Instagram portraits using apps and AI to distort her features. She looks pretty weird in every photo, a fitting commentary on the dissociative nature of social media. “I actually really like it. But I’m a little frustrated now because every time I try to make a new image for Instagram, I feel like it’s not new enough.”

I tell her it’s both funny and scary that she once had to go through a whole process of styling herself, and now she can just press a button. Does she worry about the threat of AI?

“I definitely see the threat that it could become, especially with these deepfakes. But when I type something like ‘Middle aged woman, alone in a forest, in the style of Cindy Sherman,’ what they come up with is so little of a threat to me that I just laugh. It’s such a bad version of my work. But some of the faces I’ve made with AI are fantastic. It helps me think differently about what’s possible.”

Today, Sherman is trying to figure out her “next steps.” “I don’t feel like I’m retiring, but getting older changes the work,” she says. “When I was younger, I could play young and old characters, now my range is limited.”

She has gone through many iterations, not only professionally but personally. She was married to video artist Michel Auder for 17 years (during which he struggled with heroin addiction), before dating filmmaker Paul HO and musician David Byrne. These days, she enjoys the sights of Athens with her new partner.

That reminds me, has she ever listened to Billy Bragg’s song about her, Cindy of a Thousand Lives? “Yeah, I was very flattered, especially because we’ve never met. But I guess we’re all from slightly different lives.”

And with that we take a selfie together and say goodbye.

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