Sherman, 58, has been constructing guises for much of her life. Growing up on New York’s Long Island the youngest of five kids, she kept a collection of Troll dolls—dwarflike creatures with neon-colored hair—and created shoebox houses for them. At 12, she walked around her neighborhood dressed as an old woman, wearing her great-grandmother’s dress, stockings, and bloomers, with stuffed socks standing in for sagging breasts. She digs out a framed photograph of her taken at that time, joking that it’s probably the first Cindy Sherman work.
Increasingly, she’s channeling more of herself into her projects but insists her photographs are not autobiographical, calling them performances: “You’d never ask an actor if they were playing themselves even if you can recognize them.” And while revealing herself is not her intention, she allows that the newfound vulnerability critics praised in her 2008 portraits of aging affluent women arose from her feeling of kinship with her subjects. “It was scary how easy it was to become these women—those wrinkles in the neck, you know, they weren’t makeup,” she said with a laugh. “My thought about these women was that they were showing off their fantastic lives and wealth and yet couldn’t hide the price they had paid to get there. I could identify with being really successful and at the same time feeling like life isn’t always so perfect even when you think you have it all.”
For her latest photographs, to be unveiled in April at New York’s Metro Pictures, Sherman had her pick of the Chanel archive, selecting the outfits from images sent to her by the famous fashion house. Once she made her choices, “they started sending me big coffinlike trunks stuffed like there was an invisible body inside of them.” It was her first experience wearing couture. “I didn’t want to take the hours it would take to do makeup,” she recalled, “because the clothes were so valuable and also pretty excruciating to wear, mostly because I couldn’t get them on.” Unable to zip up a beaded chiffon gown, she had to hold up the dress with one arm while she shot the picture with the other. “I was just so pissed because every time I’d go to pick up a mirror, the dress would fall off. Beads were falling on the floor, and I’m crunching on them. So it kind of affected the characters.” Ultimately, she shot herself in front of a green screen, then Photoshopped in her face and the “crazy Icelandic landscapes” she’d snapped on a recent trip.