Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cindy Sherman on Top

Cindy Sherman is on top! I wonder if she likes that idea? It's certainly an empowering image and goes well with the feminist-inspired message that underlies her series of untitled self-portraits, where she dresses up and reinterprets iconographic roles of women as sexualized objects. Rather than conform to the assumptions these roles suggest by their objectifications, because she turns the camera on herself Sherman equivocates and disturbs the power assumed by the (male) viewer who normally controls her with his gaze. When Sherman started this series in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was a major step forward for feminist photography, and although in some ways the ideas and repetition can seem dated today, in fact what still makes these images powerful is the way they now fit into the long trajectory that has become the evolving history of women, gender, and sexuality in Western art.

But what puts her on top these days is that on May 11 at Christie's New York, her photograph Untitled #96, 1981 (image above: Christie's), broke records for the most money paid for a photograph at auction: $3,890,500 (including buyer's premium). Just a few years ago, I remember a group of art historian friends being amazed to hear that Edward Steichen's photograph The Pond-Moonlight had sold for just under $3m, and now that record has been bumped down to #3. It's kind of amazing when you think about it, because by-and-large these are images printed on paper from negatives. In other words, they're not one-of-a-kinds like paintings. This is not to say that they are less valuable. Rather, because photography was a medium based on its reproducibility, it seems strange to think that anyone would pay millions of dollars for just 1 of these reproduced prints. You can see the running list of the most money ever paid for photographs at auction (private sales, remember, are always higher). Since the list is from Wikipedia, however, be forewarned about possible inaccuracies. For instance, according to this news article, Sherman previously held a record for a photograph sold at auction for $2.7m but that doesn't appear on the list at all. It is curious to see that almost all of these photographs sold at auction are 20th-century works. The first 19th-century work on the list is a daguerreotype by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, and that comes in at #12, selling for just under $922,488 (£565,250) from a Christie's London sale in May 2003. By the way, if you think you've seen Girault de Prangey's name on this blog before, you have, twice in fact!

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