[Another in my irregular series Hodgson’s Choice. Do note that this was first published in the Financial Times in 2013, and that references to ‘recent’ events are no longer all that recent, and that sales prices will have changed a lot. Things change – but one of those which has never changed is my affection for this great series and my undying, greedy wish to own it. Luckily, according my own rules, I do now.]
Some pictures make no sense alone. I have always hotly coveted this series, and wouldn’t want to choose a representative one or two. This is the early (1976) series which contained in germ everything that Cindy Sherman went on to develop. I regard them as more original than the (far more famous) Untitled Film Stills. I love the small size of the prints, the plain rather matt printing, the sheer exuberance of the idea and the craftsmanship it took to carry it out. Yet I have only seen the full series exhibited twice. The great 2006 Sherman retrospective at the Jeu de Paume in Paris had them all in a row. And they were in a recent PhotoEspana in Madrid. The Jeu de Paume was curated by Régis Durand; the Madrid show by Gerardo Mosquera. That’s comforting. It seems that people who really know photographs appreciate these things as I do. The prices suggest a certain number of fans, too.
The young Sherman rode about on public transport, observing her fellow passengers. It might have been a series like several others: grabbed views of people unaware they had been photographed. Walker Evans made such a series starting in the late 1930s. So did Chris Marker in the early years of this present century, adding allusions to paintings as well. But Sherman went to thrift shops and flea markets to find the props and clothes appropriate to the people she had seen, and then acted them out in her (very basic) studio.
There is a key tension in photography between photographer and subject – the young Sherman immediately took on both. The act of photographing is made plain : we can see the cable-release and the marks on the studio floor. So is the act of being photographed: we see funny looking make-up, hammy costumes, other peoples’ body language. Completely natural poses on a bus look weirdly unnatural without the swaying motion and the jostling neighbours. These pictures are not meant to be recreations of Cindy Sherman’s fellow citizens. The black-face is crude, so is the cross-dressing. They aren’t trying to be ‘convincing’.
The whole adds up to a prefiguring of everything that Sherman has done since, a dense prelude to a lifetime of working with gender and self-perception, and the marks of class and caste. That sounds heavy. It is heavy: they are (already in 1976) perfectly rounded sonatas in identity. But it’s a light series, too. It’s funny and charming and done without an ounce of malice. I could never be bored of these: so much of what makes photography fun is in them.
Good collectors will want the whole series, as I do. Two sets, one of fifteen images and one of twenty – known as Bus Riders I & II. They are in an edition of 20. Be warned: a group of only eight of them sold for $206,500 at Christie’s in New York in May 2011. They can be bought from Metro Pictures, Sherman’s long-term dealer.