Cindy Sherman grew up in Long Island, New York, the youngest of five children. She always felt that she had to do something to be noticed since her siblings were so much older and established compared to her. Sherman thinks that’s what led to her dressing up. “There are pictures of me dressed up as an old lady,” she says. “I was more interested in being different from other little girls who would dress up as princesses or fairies or a pretty witch. I would be the ugly old witch or the monster.”
This continued in her adult life, too. Sherman lived in New York working as a secretary at Artists Space and would sometimes arrive to work dressed as a nurse or Jackie Kennedy. “I’d be home, fooling around with makeup and a costume, maybe picked up at a thrift store, and suddenly I’d look at my watch and go: Oh, wow, I have to get to work. Well, okay, I’ll just go like this,” says Sherman.
Her first successful photographs, called Untitled Film Stills, involved Sherman using herself as a model dressed up and posing as screen stars in noirish scenes. This work caused artist Andy Warhol to say, “She’s good enough to be a real actress.”
In the late 1980s, Sherman started doing more disturbing photographs of vomit, synthetic pimples, and sex dolls. “Initially, I started that work as a reaction to feeling a little nervous that I was getting successful,” says Sherman. “Do people really like my work, or is it that they’re told to like it as the flavor of the month? So I decided to make these pieces. ‘Well, here you go, collectors. If you want to buy this picture of vomit, I dare you to buy it.’ In a way, it was successful. Those are some of my favorite pieces.”
These darker photos prompted producer Christine Vachon to ask Sherman if she would ever consider directing a horror film. At first Sherman wasn’t interested because her boyfriend had such a horrible time with the sci-fi flop Johnny Mnemonic, but eventually she was swayed. “The money people wanted to do a series of horror films for an art-house crowd, so they were willing to be experimental,” says Sherman.
This led to Sherman developing the story and then directing Office Killer about a copy editor Dorine (played by Carol Kane) who gets murderous when layoffs happen at the magazine she works for. Now a cult classic, the movie got terrible reviews when it first came out. “The good thing about horror films…is that nobody expects them to be any good,” says Sherman.
Other work in the late 1990s after she divorced her husband of sixteen years involved a series of mutilated dolls, which Sherman is particularly proud of. “I was so happy when I was making those pieces. Taking knives to Barbie dolls!”
Sherman finds herself so attracted to horror because it’s a way for her to confront her deepest, darkest fears. “My biggest fear is a horrible, horrible death, and I think this fascination with the grotesque and with horror is a way to prepare yourself physically if, god forbid, you have to experience something like that,” she says.
But along with horror she always sees humor, as in her horror comedy Office Killer, and she tries to portray this in her work. “I see humor in almost everything, in even the grotesque things, because I don’t want people to believe in them as if they were a documentary that really does show true horror. I want them to be artificial, so you can laugh or giggle at them, as I do when I watch horror movies,” says Sherman.
The photographer’s studio is littered with odd things. Photographs of amputees, circus performers, wigs, costumes, and a vintage notecard she found in an old junk shop in the late 1990s. She estimates it’s about a century old and has it pinned up in the studio—it reads: “Fair Deceiver: I did not know until last night that you had a glass eye. Woman you have deceived me and our engagement is off! If I had married you, perhaps I would have found out that you had a cork leg, wore a wig and chewed your gum with false teeth — Anyway, I don’t think you could boil water without burning it. I want a girl that can do several things besides rubbing lip rouge on my cheek. Chase around girlie and get another guy.”
It provides Sherman with a lot of material to think about. “It is just so sad,” she said. “That this person would say what he’s saying, but also that someone kept it all those years. The poor woman.”
Except for her one foray in directing, Sherman always works alone. “Briefly in the ’80s I tried using friends and family and even hired an assistant to pose, and I felt like I just had to entertain them, be conscious of “Do you need coffee now? Are you tired? Do you want a break?” And they’d be kind of giggly because they were being made up to look funny. I push myself but I don’t push other people, or if I do, I’m apologizing because we’re going too late or whatever. Even having an assistant around, I’d feel self-conscious at times, like I’d better look busy now, rather than just spacing out, looking at images online or in magazines, or whatever I might do.”