Claire Griffiths at the Cindy Sherman Retrospective, National Portrait Gallery London

Northampton University graduate Claire Griffiths visited the Cindy Sherman Retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London earlier this Summer and has reported her experience for the Photograd blog. The Cindy Sherman Retrospective closes on 15th September 2019.


Do we all long to dress up and create disguises for ourselves? Dying our hair, wearing labels, makeup - how we are seen is perhaps more evident than ever in a world where technology is racing at an unprecedented rate and 93 million selfies being taken on average per day. I felt it in my late teens, the need to be seen and unseen and when I got to Art School the camera became a perfect disguise.

Cindy Sherman had made me see photography and the art world in a new way as an art student, pre selfie generation so when her retrospective came to The National Portrait Gallery I rushed to buy tickets. Coinciding with a showing of work supported by the RPS 100Heroines initiative which I had somehow been accepted into entitled (Unframing Identities).

I was to be in London for three days and on the first day I arrived at the exhibition as it opened. Unsure whether my tickets were booked (their system was down at the time), but they let me in, and I walked in like I was entering a Rolling Stones concert ready to experience Sherman's work up close and personal. It felt like seeing an old friends work, someone who had inspired me when it felt like the art world was closed quarters and photography a male orientated past time.

When I started my Fine Art Degree circa 1998 I was dead sure I wanted to paint and draw perhaps become a costume or set designer. Somewhere in my psyche I had always felt drawn to fashion but ended up on a Fine Art Degree, the course offered: painting, sculpture print and another option: Photography. These were the days before digital and the dark room seemed like a place of sanctuary. It still seemed like source material to me though and was not entirely convinced photography was an art, I thought it was perhaps a "cop out" for people who couldn't draw or paint.

Then one week in art history, Cindy Sherman appeared. Our female Art History tutor, Wendy, was a jolly feminist and talked to us about the male gaze and my whole being "woke up". Cindy Sherman along with people like Gillian Wearing and Sophie Calle depicted a different way of using photography for me, a way to communicate what it was to be a women, telling their own stories, communicating their own feelings of things associated with the human condition and often what it is to be a women. Sherman in particular had seemed to be able to encapsulate a whole plethora of things I wanted to do: Fashion, set design, costume and story telling.

On entering the show her large scale images roared at me unapologetically and led me to rooms filled with familiar and unseen work. Untitled film stills 1977-1980 mimicking ideas from traditional female tropes in film noir or Hitchcock was thrilling to see as a series, I had only seen this work in books or on TV. I stood mesmerised as I watched her film Doll Clothes made whilst she was a student, a stop motion playing with dressing up and thought "I wish I had thought of that".

Her work is perhaps more relevant than ever as a whole group of young women (and men) grow up with filters and selfies and more impossible beauty standards to adhere to but Sherman has been exploring these themes for decades. Her Dummy Vogue covers smile down at us, a vampish Jerry Hall gazes back and metaphorizes into a goofy Sherman portrait. Her newer self portraits of women staring down at the viewer yield a vulnerability that I am grateful for, women holding onto youth and beauty, images created on a grand scale imitating what we might find in an upstate apartment in New York perhaps of one of Trumps exes or an ex movie star.

It might not be Sherman until we look closer and find her hidden under thick make up and elaborate wigs. A sense of sadness prevails as our own youth and passing of time is presented to us through Sherman's images - whilst round the corner we find her dressed as a clown grotesquely facing the viewer as if to say "Lets laugh at beauty and ourselves together". For me Sherman opened doors for women making photographs continues to inspire further generations. She took the lens away from a masculine view point, made it her own enabling fresh female perspective, using humour, skill and story telling. To Cindy Sherman I am forever grateful. Go see the show.