I was maybe 8 or 10 when I got my first camera. I still have pictures of my nieces who would tape up their faces so they were all warped. When I was a teenager, I used tempera to paint makeup on my face and actually went into the city like that. When I went to suny in Buffalo, I was required to take photo courses that got me thinking in terms of conceptual ideas. I shot myself naked; once I had done it, the trauma was over. I realized that it became objective, it wasn’t me. And that must have clicked, because I started working that way.
I went on to doing more distorted nudes and conceptual things with the camera. I found clothing from the forties and fifties at the Salvation Army, and I would play with makeup on my face and use my face like a blank canvas. Dressing up and painting and photography jelled for me when the makeup became paint and my face became the canvas.
When I moved to New York, I was looking for some way to tell ambiguous narratives. The idea for “Untitled Film Stills” wasn’t this long, ongoing project that it became. It was an experiment to see if I could get something that implied a narrative without another person having to be there. I thought, I’ll use one roll of film and do different setups in a series to look like they came from one actress’s résumé of films. They were all this blonde actress, sort of a trashy has-been, trying to play like she’s only in her early twenties. I wanted poignancy.
I was working part-time as a receptionist at Artists Space and occasionally I would come in dressed as a nurse or as a secretary from the forties. I didn’t have to show up to work until one o’clock in the afternoon, so if I happened to be just futzing around, I would stay in character and go to work. At a certain point, I stopped dressing up in public. I never really wanted to stand out in a crowd.
Basically, I just made the work. I didn’t pay attention to isms. It took me a long time to understand what postmodernism meant – even though I was already in that group. I think my work is informed by feminism, and there’s definitely an anger that comes out, but it could be just anger that comes out of me, not out of the woman in me. It’s not like I’m out to save the world.
I don’t remember there being a certain time when I felt like my career was suddenly going anywhere. But then on the other side, I definitely felt some anger and competition with the painters, with those boys and with art-world sexism. What always pissed me off was the feeling that in the lump of artists that would get talked about at that time, those guys’ work sold for so much more money, and it was like they were considered gold and I was silver.
I don’t think artists should be celebrities. The art can become known, but I never thought it should be about having the artist go on David Letterman.
In 1995, the Museum of Modern Art bought Sherman’s “Untitled Stills” for a reported $1 million and she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. It was kind of freaky that they both happened in the same year. I would have felt much more comfortable or less self-conscious if they had come later in life. But I definitely feel much more secure in terms of having arrived at a certain level, although at the same time, I’ve always felt, well, I’m just going to ignore that and keep on doing what I do.
Interviewed by Phoebe Hoban