Ever since the phenomenal success of the series Untitled Film Stills in the late 1970s, Cindy Sherman has held (and deserved) a high position in that ever more crowded place where photography intersects with contemporary art. She has consistently shown us things that have been by turn perturbing, amusing, wry, touching, sickening.

Sherman, in other words, has the full range we expect of a great novelist or film-maker. The astonishing thing is that she has achieved that range almost entirely by photographing herself. Her self-reference is not partial, as it is with many other artists. Not for her the little cameos of Alfred Hitchcock shuffling gently into every film. Sherman appears always alone in her pictures, without interlocutors of any kind. She is almost always in the near foreground, unmistakably the sole subject even when placed a little further away. To have achieved such a range of emotion using such a fiercely restricted vocabulary is an achievement in itself.

Sherman is not in any traditional sense a self-portraitist. She has always used a range of physical disguises such as make-up, costume, props, prosthetic body parts and wigs. She makes no attempt to conceal their falsehood, either. No doubt we have been shown Cindy Sherman’s own hair many times. But because we have also been shown dyed hair and extensions and wigs and half-wigs we are never sure which is hers. Her inquiry has never really been about Cindy Sherman, although no doubt a part of her enjoys all that dressing up. Indeed I entertain a fantasy that one day we will learn that Cindy Sherman is not her real name and that in company with many other artists she has created a persona for public consumption to allow a private person to go about her business untroubled. To stand, as one can at the Jeu de Paume, in room after room of Sherman’s splendid reappropriations of genres, from old masters to poses from the porn industry is certainly to face a series of hard questions about role and identity and the depiction of character in our image-based culture.

Sherman has normally worked
in long series, each lasting a period of years, of formally connected
pictures. Several have overlapped chronologically, and one of the pleasures of this exhibition is that the curators (led by Régis Durand, director of the Jeu de Paume), have resisted the temptation to mix and match, and have reunited the series if not in toto, then at least in great coherent blocks. This makes it possible to see Sherman working out her extraordinary 30-year counterpoint – herself as sitter against herself as photographer – in a way that has been possible in book form but never yet in front of the prints themselves. It works admirably well. It shows us things about Sherman’s progression that have not been clear before.

Cindy Sherman’s language has always been deeply rooted in photographic culture, and the range of pictures that she trusts us to “get” is very broad. Even in Untitled Film Stills, right at the outset, she was quoting and parodying and paraphrasing photographs at least as contentedly as she was film. In this one series there are clear references to fashion pictures from several different decades (Untitled Film Stills #6, #8, #22 etc), to the jazz photography of masters such as Hermann Leonard (Untitled Film Still #32), even to the pioneering travels of Henri Cartier-
Bresson’s trips away from Europe to a then wildly exotic other world (Untitled Film Still #43). Untitled Film Still #39, of a sombre girl in magical light in a modest bathroom plainly throws its viewers back to Will Ronis’ famous Le Nu Provençal. A plainly robed figure seems trapped by a sinister corridor and leans against it in a gesture of abandonment (Untitled Film Still #27B): there could hardly be a clearer allusion to the marvellously claustrophobic series of portraits Irving Penn made in the late 1940s: Marcel Duchamp and Truman Capote and several others, cornered, with nowhere to turn but the camera.

This sure-footed navigation around previous photographic iconography is a Cindy Sherman hallmark. She doesn’t overdo it. It’s just that Sherman is confident that if you want to understand
a picture one degree better,
you can rely on plenty of things she’s pretty sure you have seen before.

Among my favourite series of hers, also started very early, is the marvellous Bus Riders. Here Sherman has taken the simplest recurring set-up, of a visible cable-release in a plain room-turned-studio and played the parts of ordinary people she’s seen on buses. Several have their hands raised to hang on to the straps, and several more have their arms crossed in that defensive position one readily associates with the nervousness of being out in public. The observation is so fine that I’m sure Sherman reproduced poses that she had captured discreetly with a little camera while actually on the bus. The references are self-confidently plain: see the hidden-camera New York subway pictures of Walker Evans, dating from the late 1930s. Those asked if this were really the best of all possible worlds. See, too, the great attempt at cataloguing a nation made by August Sander in the 1920s. Those were strongly political by the very fact of their neutrality. See, as well, that long tradition of photographers asking people to represent themselves: step into the temporary studio, and press this when you’re ready. Those invite people to show off or to dream for an instant before returning them to the everyday. And see, finally, Richard Avedon’s pictures of (disturbingly) ordinary Americans from In The American West, where the plain background is frightening and isolating like an operating theatre. Those made clowns or caricatures of people who would never knowingly have clowned or caricatured for a second. All this is in a series of small black and white prints that apparently simply repeat a likeable formula a few times. And all this before you even begin to ask yourself about the role-playing, the representation (of other and of self), the blurring of gender and of class and race.

Cindy Sherman has consistently managed to achieve this kind of density within apparently restrictive formal limits. But it’s never oppressive and it’s never misplaced. At her best she’s an amazingly moving observer, shrewd and subtle as any. In Paris it’s right (and only slightly excessive) to compare her to Balzac. Over many years she has created a one-woman Comédie Humaine. Her Hollywood/Hampton Types, of 2000-2002, are a sort of lament for the Desperate Housewives trap of how terribly hard you have to try for something you don’t in the end want. They are touching and savage at the same time. Photography doesn’t often do multiple readings convincingly. In Sherman’s hands it does them all the time.

There are certainly series here I find less successful. Her various distressingly overstated sexual series, in particular, done with dolls she might have borrowed from the studio of Hans Bellmer, fall horribly between the erotic imaginings of a Bataille or a Sade and the rough coarse sexy joy of rock ‘n’ roll. There are a couple of other places where her sure-
footedness has let her down, but very few. From an overview like this, we can see just how central her preoccupations have been to those of other photographers. From the complex drama-doc narratives of a Sophie Calle to the cool studious neutral gaze of Rineke Dijkstra or even the impassioned desire to put oneself in the picture of a Nan Goldin, I see traces of Cindy Sherman all over the place. For somebody who essentially only ever dressed up and photographed herself, it’s an astonishing influence from a brilliant career.

‘Cindy Sherman Retrospective’ is at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, until September 3 2006. Tel +33 1 47 03 12 50

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