Deriving Meaning from Photography: A Look at Cindy Sherman’s Portraits

Emily Rothkopf

Photography, particularly of people, is more prevalent than ever in today’s digital and social media driven age.  Society has a fascination and almost addiction to the “art form.”  At every opportune moment, one will pull out his/her smartphone and snap a photo to capture the moment — and that photo will most likely be shared with hundreds on one or more social media platforms.  In fact, there are some platforms where the sole function is to share photos, e.g. Instagram, capitalizing on what people enjoy most about the market leaders Facebook and Twitter.  There is also the infamous selfie, a self-portrait per say, which has so infiltrated society that the word is now in the dictionary.  In conjunction with this, we have a celebrity-obsessed culture where the photograph is our fodder.

Photographs in one sense are documentary, capturing time for future generations, fulfilling our need for memories and nostalgia.  As the early 20th century philosopher Walter Benjamin put it, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences (Benjamin 1936).  But that reason alone does not account for the prolific nature the art form has taken.  Perhaps one reason behind the appeal is that in today’s digital age where so much of what we see is fabricated, photoshopped, filtered, staged, etc., we still get a sense of realness in the photograph.  Voyeurs can more easily relate to and derive meaning from recognized symbols, or the semiotics, of a photograph versus say an abstract painting.  Viewers hone in on the facial expressions, the physical characteristics, the setting, the colors, etc. to derive meaning and make judgments.  These visual cues are so easily processed that most people will derive meaning without even recognizing it.  And before one knows it, he/she will have processed a photo album of 100 images.

Using Cindy Sherman’s portrait photography examples below, I explore how we derive meaning from visual cues, referring to pre-existing realities outside of the image (Irvine 2014).  I go beyond the basic symbolism that is commonly recognized and easily interpreted, and identify my own personal experiences and internal databases that exemplify a more abstract reading.


“…the image is not only a mirror for the artist’s experience but also for those of the viewer,” (Goldstein 2011).

Cindy Sherman is an American photographer known for her conceptual portraits employing herself as the model.  In her History Portraits collection, Sherman photographed herself in costumes, with props and prosthetics, to portray famous artistic figures of the past, like Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus (Wikipedia 2014).  Sherman’s appropriation of this piece is shown below.  While there are many obvious visual cues tying the work to the Roman era (toga, headpiece, grapes, baroque style, etc.), my own encyclopedia of art brings me to the WWII era.  I am reminded of “Rosie the Riveter” with the female face attached to a flexed muscle.  There is a feminist vibe to Sherman’s photography and this piece is no exception.


 Left: “History Portrait #224” Cindy Sherman 1990, source:; Right: “Rosie the Riveter” J. Howard Miller 1943, source:

Sherman’s Centerfolds collection was inspired by the center spreads in fashion and pornographic magazines.  These portraits again involve Sherman as the model portraying young women in various roles, from a sultry seductress to a frightened, vulnerable victim (Wikipedia 2014).  Some may view the piece below and hone in on the school girl outfit and create a story around that.  However, with visual cues like the short haircut, frightened blue eyes, seclusion, etc., my mind recalls Mia Farrow in the film Rosemary’s Baby.  Farrow plays a pregnant woman who believes her husband may have, in essence, made a pact with the devil via their eccentric neighbors, promising them the child to be used as a human sacrifice in their occult rituals in exchange for success in his acting career.  Her character is riddled with fear, vulnerability and seclusion.

Above: Cindy Sherman “Centerfolds” 1981, source:; Below: Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” 1968, source:

Sherman’s collection Untitled Film Stills consists of black-and-white photographs evoking the American film noir vibe of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (Wikipedia 2014).  I was immediately reminded of one of Britney Spears’ early Rolling Stone covers.  I don’t recall purchasing or reading the particular issue but somehow the image was stored in my memory bank.  Sherman depicts a teenage pop culture that transcends generations.  My mind processed the hairbrush, day-dreamy gaze, girly bedroom setting and the ensemble, to almost instantly draw the Spears cover from my encyclopedia of art.

  Britney Spears photographed in Kentwood, Louisiana in March of 1999.

Left: Cindy Sherman “Untitled Film Still #6” 1977, source:; Right: Britney Spears “Rolling Stone” 1999, source:


In a portrait photograph we read signs relating to the style of photography, body language, facial expressions, clothing, era, location, etc. (Goldstein 2011).  On a more individualized basis, we draw on our own experiences, opinions, likes and dislikes when viewing a photograph.  As viewers of this relatively “real” art form, we get to assess, judge, enjoy, and relate, using a process that is typically subconscious and effortless.  In today’s hurried and hyper-mediated culture, the photograph is highly “likeable.”

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Martin Irvine, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

“Cindy Sherman.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Goldstein, Mark. “How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos” Photography Blog. N.p., 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Irvine, Martin. “Mediation & Representation: Plato to Braudrillard and Digital Media.” 17 Feb. 2014. Lecture.