Over the past three decades, photographer Cindy Sherman has become one of the art world’s most successful-and enigmatic-figures. In the late seventies, Sherman began modeling for her own images (most notably in her influential Untitled Film Stills series), disguised behind costumes, wigs, and makeup to explore and critique female identity.
But with Guest of Cindy Sherman-a new documentary by Tom Donahue and Paul Hasegawa-Overacker (Sherman’s boyfriend of five years) that opened last week in New York and Santa Fe-Sherman’s fans will finally get a glimpse behind this carefully constructed mask.
The film documents Sherman’s controversial work, shows her astronomical rise through the New York art scene, and offers rare footage of the iconic photographer at home and at work. Hasegawa-Overacker conceived the film while dating Sherman, beginning in 1999, hoping to critique what he considered the art world’s rampant commercialism and pretension. Formerly the host of Gallery Beat, a tongue-in-cheek public-access show that documented goings-on at New York’s top galleries, Hasegawa-Overacker used the newfound access he had with Sherman and material from his show.
He decided to refocus the film on their relationship, however, after feeling increasingly overshadowed by her celebrity. “I went to a fancy little affair, just a few people, and my place card read ‘Guest of Cindy Sherman,'” he says. “That was the final straw.” Their relationship soon soured.
Yet Hasegawa-Overacker never blames Sherman-or considers her a part of the pomposity. He admits their breakup may have more to do with his “fragile male ego,” and in the film, he and Donahue suggest that Sherman has done her best to avoid the cult of celebrity. Julian Schnabel and Robert Longo, who enjoyed acclaim in the eighties and rabidly encouraged their celebrity status, are good counterexamples. “She didn’t play the press like Schnabel did,” Donahue says. Adds Hasegawa-Overacker, if an artist indulges in fame and celebrity, “their work goes to hell. [Thus] she was uncomfortable talking about her work.”
While her depiction in the film is overwhelmingly positive, Sherman’s enthusiasm for the film has waned since the relationship ended. “I was and still am extremely ambivalent about the film, not that I don’t think Paul will do a great job, but that I’m in it,” she told The Financial Times in 2006. “I wish he could tell the story without mentioning me.” And though she had given her blessing for friends, colleagues, and staff-among them, John Waters, Carol Kane, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Ingrid Sischy-to speak on camera, Sherman sent a mass e-mail before the Tribeca Film Festival premiere to disavow the project, labeling it a “big mistake.” Still, she permitted the directors to use her image. “She allowed this film to keep its integrity,” Hasegawa-Overacker says.
So do the directors worry about giving Sherman exposure when she actively tries to avoid it? Not at all, says Hasegawa-Overacker. “She happens to be one of the nicest, least pretentious people you would meet-she’s shy, unpretentious, and loveable.” Besides, he says, “she’s a historical figure at this point. It was bound to happen.”