Art & Photography

Cindy Sherman – Contact

A new book by Jeannette Montgomery Barron presents a different, less fictionalised side of the American photographer 

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron

In some ways, we’re all familiar with the face of Cindy Sherman, an American photographer known for her self-portraiture adorned with wigs, prosthetics and elaborate makeup. For the last four decades, Sherman has turned an inquisitive eye onto the concept of identity, deconstructing its codes into varying pastiche of art, gender and self. 

In a conversation with John Waters for MoMa in 2012, she said, “I wish I could treat every day as Halloween, and get dressed up and go out into the world as some eccentric character.” So it’s somewhat fitting, then, that Jeannette Montgomery Barron would end up photographing Sherman on Halloween in 1985, an annual event that sees America congregate in partying mass and embellished in fancy dress. Jeannette was invited to Sherman’s studio in the city, and it was in this very moment that she sat herself in front of the camera as her own subject – revealing a face without all the typical costumes and fictional characterisations.

This was nearly 30 years ago, and the pictures have now been brought into light with a new book, Contact, published by NJG Studio. A compilation of 40 images and four contact sheets, the visual tome presents a different side of Sherman, as seen through the eye of Barron who’s known for capturing portraits of many notable names from New York City during the 80s. Below, I chat to Barron to learn more about this meeting.

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron

Having lensed many renowned personalities over the years, what was it that captivated you to photograph Cindy Sherman?

When these portraits were taken in 1985, I had already photographed many people in the art world. Cindy was an artist whose work fascinated me. I just really wanted to photograph her. 

How did the shoot come about; was she happy to be photographed?

I called her up on the phone and asked if I could photograph her – that’s the way it worked back then. If someone wasn’t home, I’d leave a message on their answering machine and they would hopefully call me back. 

She seemed happy to be photographed. I really hope she was. 

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron

Was there a specific reason for photographing on Halloween in 1985? Does this date have much significance?

I’m pretty certain the date, 31 October, was chosen randomly. And I never really thought about the significance of the date until recently. 

What was the art landscape like in New York at this time?

Well, you know, we all tend to romanticise the past. But I remember Soho still being a bit rough and wonderful back then. One vivid memory was walking around a corner onto West Broadway and always smelling fresh pepper; there were warehouses still down there.  

I’d always stop by and say hello to Mary Boone when I was downtown, and also pop across the street to Leo Castelli’s gallery. I had two good friends who moved to a loft in Tribeca in the early 1980’s. If you can imagine, there was not one grocery store down there back then; it was kind of like the wild west. 

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron

What can you tell me about Sherman’s real-life character and persona? And how did this compare with your expectations?

Cindy was very quiet and reserved as I recall. I’m not sure I expected her to be any other way, even though her work may have led one to expect differently.              

What was the process like; was it much of a collaboration between the two of you – between a photographer and subject? How exactly did you want to portray her in the photographs?

My process was always much the same: I would arrive exactly on time with my Hasselblad 500 C/M and usually Tri-x 400 film (although for these portraits I used Ilford film, which was unusual). I had two Lowel Tota Lights with stands I always brought along. And I always used a tripod for my Hasselblad. 

I would usually find a spot where I want to photograph the subject and move around a bit, getting closer, going further away. Then sometimes I would change location and go somewhere else in the studio or apartment. 

I wanted to portray Cindy as Cindy without all of the costumes on. I imagine that’s what she wanted too, since she answered the door in her normal clothes.  

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron

What’s it like looking back on this moment in time; how does it feel to revisit these pictures again?

I have to say it feels just like yesterday. It’s been great to rediscover some of the images I never printed before.  

And how do you hope your audience will respond to the work?

I hope it will be a fun ride for those who were not around in the 1980’s, and a blast from the past for those who were. 

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron
© Jeannette Montgomery Barron
© Jeannette Montgomery Barron