A Walk Through Cindy Sherman’s Exhibit

I have always been curious about photography but never really had the chance to learn the art in depth. Last term I took a photography course at BCIT (BCST 1198) to not just learn the technical aspects of the craft, but also to help me understand different ways to express my vision through the camera. The world of photography proved itself to be so deep and full of meaning that it surely transformed into a new passion of mine. And what better way to celebrate this passion than visiting Cindy Sherman’s exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

I have to confess that the first time I learned about Sherman’s work in class I was not completely moved. Photography, on its depth, was still very new to me and self-portraits didn’t exactly catch my interest. I used to think they should be a depiction of reality, and the fact that Sherman’s work was so complexly staged and filled with pop culture references made me feel like she was cheating, since they did not represent a real moment in her life. Fortunately, after being enlightened with knowledge by the course instructor Zahra Darvishian, even the most square-brains can blossom. By immersing myself in her work I could not only understand a bit more of her process and evolution through the years, but I also got a sense of her statements as a photographer, as a woman, and as an artist altogether. For me, that’s the beauty of a work of art; that it’s only completed by the way it touches and interacts with the observer.

My first impression as I walked around the exhibit was to see how not only Sherman was passionate about photography but also about role-playing. All her characters, so unique and so deliberate, sometimes feeling like they would scream their stories out of the frame, was something truly amazing. And suddenly it became clear how many times this American photographer used the tool of role-playing in order to raise questions and critique about various roles in society, especially around women and the way they are usually portrayed in the media.

As I navigated through Sherman’s exhibit, I got a taste of her diverse themes through time. Each room had its own momentum, evoking unique feelings and perspectives. There’s no way I could talk about all of her work here, so I will just point out four noteworthy thoughts and observations I had, and the rest you will have to see for yourself.

First to note was her early work. Being a sucker for black and white photography, her many portraits in her early years, inspired in film-noir and European cinema, made my jaw drop .

Second was her journey through eerie and bizarre territories. I can’t begin to explain how the manipulation of such themes resulted in strong and shocking images throughout different series like “Fairy Tales”, “Sex Pictures, Fashion, Surrealistic Pictures”, and “Flappers”, which definitely moved me.

Third was the fact that none of her works had a title. As an artist myself, finding the right title or even the right name for a character is a constant struggle—having the work speak by itself felt truly liberating.

The last display was something that felt almost as a hidden treasure. In the corners of the gallery there were small rooms with extracts from Sherman’s studio showing her creative process. That was like entering in a whole other world, inside the mind of the creator, watching every step from the birth of an idea, to the early drafts, to the final product. This type of “behind the scenes” material is really hard to find and helped me understand the great lengths walked by Sherman to get her masterpieces made.

After visiting the exhibit, I believe I understood why Cindy Sherman is considered to be such an influential artist. Her art speaks more than I could ever describe with words.

If you want to visit the exhibit it will be on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery until March 8th, 2020. It is the first exhibit in Canada to show a full retrospective of her life’s work for 20 years and it is a delightful dive into the mind of one of the world’s most acclaimed contemporary artists.