Ahead of a major London show, the artist talks about her childhood, therapy and her tricky relationship with success
Perhaps the most intriguing exhibit in Cindy Shermans forthcoming retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery is the first, Cindy Book, a family photo album she began making when she was just six years old. It comprises 26 snapshots pasted on pages torn out of a school exercise book and placed inside stapled-together plain covers that are now stained and discoloured with age. For all sorts of reasons, it is a good place to start.
There is no artifice in the actual photographs. They trace ordinary moments in Shermans early life from infancy to adolescence: cute baby pics, family gatherings, snaps of her as a child at the beach and portraits of her as a teenager standing gauchely alongside awkward young men. What is striking is the sense of an almost stereotypical all-American suburban childhood. As is always the case with Sherman, though, nothing is quite what it seems.
In green ink, she has circled herself in each photo and underneath written Thats me,. That comma is fascinating, perhaps a childs grammatical error, yet already implying, as curator Paul Moorhouse notes in his catalogue essay, an unfolding process. When Sherman rediscovered Cindy Book as a 21-year-old art student, the process unfolded some more, as she added extra photos to the album and, as she puts it, made the handwriting seem to grow up along with the images. Does she consider the original handmade album the beginning of her long and singular art practice (Thats me, or is it?) or does it start in earnest with the later intervention?
The original book is interesting to me because it was more about my fascination with our family snapshots, she says. They were kept in a shoebox and, as a child, I loved to pore over them looking for pictures of myself as a baby, but also to identify all these characters that existed before I was born. There was such a big age gap between my older siblings and myself, so I think now I was somehow finding myself in the family through the snapshots. When I came back to the album as a student, that was definitely the more knowing artist coming into play.