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The Photograph In review - NYC

by Lee Gaul

Mnuchin Gallery - Cindy Sherman Once Upon A Time 1981-2011

- All images are courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York


“Once upon a time there was a princess. Once upon a time, there was a young woman who… Once upon a time, in a far away forest, there was an evil witch”. Every story starts with “Once Upon a Time”. It’s how a storyteller establishes the characters, setting, and driving goal of their protagonist. Once upon a time, in the beautiful Mnuchin Gallery on the Upper East Side of New York City, there was an artist and that artist’s name was Cindy Sherman.


It is almost impossible to refer to Cindy Sherman’s work as strictly photography without acknowledging what is involved in her process. Sherman’s cinematic photographs are mysterious and dense. The artist completely transforms herself into both masculine and feminine Archetypes. Sherman is equal part, historian, set designer, makeup artist, actor, performance artist, and photographer.


Sherman’s photographs present a conundrum without context and this compels the viewer to search for clues. What has just happened? What is going to happen next? Who the character is before you? There are so many layers of perplexity, in Sherman’s art, compelling the audience to engage with the image is an end in-and-of-itself. You, the viewer, are invited to create the story yourself by participation and concoct your part to play in the story, a voyeur, a detective, a lover, a criminal.

MoMA - The Shape Of Things Photographs from Robert B. Menschel

The still photographic image has rested precariously on the divide between artistic medium, and tool of documentation. And to this day, the debate still remains as to whether photography should be considered equal to other artistic mediums.


As the MoMA show successfully demonstrates, early photography, while heavily used as a tool to document the world,  the context of the image is inextricably tied to the subjective experience of the photographer.   Later we see the formal and subjective uses of the technology start to shape the idea of what the camera is capable of until finally, in the later part of the twentieth century, it finds its footing as a genuine expressive medium.



For most of human history, people relied on the artist to provide a glimpse of that which was out of reach. In modernity, it is quite easy to take for granted the idea that we know that which we have not experienced in person in an often very intimate way. Before the cameras, you had to rely on the subjective experience of the artist to draw or paint or write or sing or tell stories about giant beasts and sapphire blue waters. Before the photograph, people only had the artist's rendering of the exotic as a frame of reference.


This represents a challenge in how effective an artist rendering is on documenting reality and, in fact, presents a pretty compelling argument that painting, sculpture, and the written word, are not always ideal in documenting things or events.


So it is no wonder that, when the first cameras became more widely adopted, they were used for documenting the world. People were intensely interested in knowing more about faraway places and exotic life.



And so it stayed this way for quite some time (with notable exceptions of course). But later, we begin to see artists taking a greater interest in photography and the use of the camera as just another tool along side the paint brush, and the chisel. A move toward the “more formal and subjective in the immediate post war era”

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