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Cindy Sherman 101 for Writers

Cindy Sherman characters show writers the juicy bits about dark side, intrigue and adventure. Not to mention social commentary. I should have a photo for this. But go with me for a moment. There’s a writing exercise where you go to the museum, pick a painting or photograph and then tell the story you imagine. You could pick a Monet Haystack. Or a Cindy Sherman photo from the recent MOMA Show that kind of blows the doors off of that assignment. As the Economist says,

She’s the ‘Mistress of Self-Effacement.’

Like the shots or not, they tell a story. They are character driven. They succeed in portraying women and stereotypes in an ironic, artsy and iconoclastic voice that makes some shots worth $3.89M. It’s not the cash, of course. It’s the characters.

One of the most flat-footed parts of any characterization is the laundry list of what’s worn.

Looking at a Sherman portrait you know immediately who this woman is. You know from the clothes, the details of the shoes and the scarf, what class she’s from, what part of the country, and what period. And then there are the details of the scene. Something tragic has happened or is about to  happen to these characters. You want to know. Well-chosen details equal well-drawn characters. Here’s a quick interview with Cindy Sherman.

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Beyond character, there’s a story in each portrait. You imagine putting yourself in the mindset of a matinee idol from the 50’s. Or a victim on the side of the road. Or a pin-up with a twist. It’s what writers aspire to every day.

Cindy Sherman, to me, is a writer at heart.

She literally puts her self into these portraits. (Note: She is always the model for her portraits; though in the museum I overheard several different couples arguing if it was the same person–most thought it was not!). Beyond the self, she puts her soul into these people, telling stories, kicking social commentary ass, and otherwise making us cringe. Of course, without the well-drawn character we wouldn’t care as much about the story.

But the biggest revelation for me from the MOMA show?

Structure. Because the structure of these prints is what made me keep looking; held my attention beyond the initial, ‘oh, that’s a crazy person in some wild situation.’ There is a definite compositional genius that pulls everything together. There are repeated shapes in the foreground and background. A linear movement from an upper corner that connects to a throughline intersecting the subject and leading the eye there. Not to mention a not so subtle use of shading to push your focus exactly where you’re supposed to look.  Cindy Sherman 101 for writers is as much a reminder of structure as it is about character and story. It’s a great show, and she’s as much a writer without words as anyone I’ve ever seen.

MORE WRITING OBSERVATIONS: Gonzo Journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s style is worth aping online.