January 16, 2013 4:49 pm

‘Bus Riders’ by Cindy Sherman

This serious yet funny 1976 series prefigures everything Sherman has done since – and does not come cheap
Cindy Sherman 3 Untitled prints©Cindy Sherman

Some pictures make no sense alone. I have always hotly coveted this series, and wouldn’t want to choose a representative one or two. This is the early (1976) series that contained in germ everything that Cindy Sherman went on to develop. I regard them as more original than the (far more famous) “Untitled Film Stills”. I love the small size of the prints, the plain rather matt printing, the sheer exuberance of the idea and the craftsmanship it took to carry it out. Yet I have only seen the full series exhibited twice: at the great 2006 Sherman retrospective at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, which had them all in a row, and at a recent PhotoEspaña in Madrid. The prices suggest that I’m not the only fan of these works.

The young Sherman rode about on public transport, observing her fellow passengers. It might have been a series like several others: grabbed views of people unaware they had been photographed. Walker Evans made such a series starting in the late 1930s. So did Chris Marker in the early years of the present century, adding allusions to paintings as well. But Sherman went to thrift shops and flea markets to find the props and clothes appropriate to the people she had seen, and then acted them out in her (very basic) studio.

There is a tension in photography between photographer and subject – Sherman immediately took on both. The act of photographing is made plain: we can see the cable-release and the marks on the studio floor. So is the act of being photographed: we see funny-looking make-up, hammy costumes, other people’s body language. Completely natural poses on a bus look weirdly unnatural without the swaying motion and the jostling neighbours. These pictures are not meant to be recreations of Sherman’s fellow citizens. The black-face is crude, so is the cross-dressing. They aren’t trying to be “convincing”.

The whole adds up to a prefiguring of everything that Sherman has done since, a dense prelude to a lifetime of working with gender and self-perception, and the marks of class and caste. That sounds heavy. It is heavy: they are (already in 1976) perfectly rounded sonatas in identity. But it’s a light series, too. It’s funny and charming and done without an ounce of malice. I could never be bored of these: so much of what makes photography fun is in them.

Good collectors will want the whole series, as I do. Twenty images properly called Untitled #363-377 inclusive, plus Untitled #430, #431, #433, #434, #439. They are in an edition of 20. Be warned: a group of only eight of them sold for $206,500 at Christie’s in New York in May 2011. They can be bought from Metro Pictures, Sherman’s long-term dealer.

This is part of a series on photography appearing in the FT and FT Weekend. To see more selections, go to www.ft.com/hodgson

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