Staged photography and the performance of autofacture: cross-genre impersonation in Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits

Karantonis, P (2008) 'Staged photography and the performance of autofacture: cross-genre impersonation in Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits.' International Journal of the Arts in Society, 3 (2). pp. 37-44. ISSN 1833-1866

Official URL:


This paper will use Roland Barthes’ observation of staged photography as a primitive form of theatre as its theoretical point of departure in order to reconcile both the theatrical and visual codes at play in Cindy Sherman’s self-portraiture of the 1980s and 1990s and the relevance of this to performance studies today. Accordingly, Sherman’s creations provoke and challenge the theoretical discourses of visual and performances cultures in their staging of the crises in representation and reception of the image and the genre. This may be reconciled with the enduring preoccupation of a theatre of images in contemporary performance-making in Western culture, effected by the deconstruction of character. Through her self-fashioning, Sherman’s ‘subject’ acquires an object-like status bearing the layered signification of historical costume, detectable prostheses, ill-fitting wigs, beards and grotesquely unnatural make-up that interpolates with the desires and expectations of the spectator in unraveling the meanings of these signs. The foregrounding of these signs function as a Verfremdsdungseffekt of identity; one of the legacies of Bertolt Brecht’s experiments in the theatre. Staged photography therefore is a liminal and challenging genre which calls into question the philosophical dichotomy of representation as truth or representation as fabrication; the latter being at the heart of the anti-theatrical prejudice, evident in historical literature. In presenting herself as the impostor of art and cinematic history in her self-portraiture, Cindy Sherman’s performance appears histrionic, in a way that has roots in psychoanalytic theories of visual culture. However, Sherman’s achievement of deconstructed imitation calls a number of theoretical assumptions into question about the processes of authorship and the unity of genre. The limits of the visible ‘subject’ are all destabilised to suggest the powerful arrangement of an impersonation.

Item Type: Article

This publication appears in the peer reviewed journal, produced as an output of the Third International Conference on the Arts in Society, held at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, United Kingdom, 28-31 July 2008. My article deals with the concept of staged photography (exemplified by the subject artist Cindy Sherman) - which is, as Roland Barthes argues, a 'primitive form of theatre'. The notion of cross-genre impersonation is explored when examples of Sherman's work are seen as impersonations of film stills and Classical portrait painting. Accordingly, the concept of impersonation is taken apart for how it renders the human subject 'impersonal' within performative, visual codes and this has a philosophical weight. My philosophical framework in this instance was informed by my doctoral thesis, which explored impersonation as arising from Emmanual Levinas's conception of the impersonal.

Keywords: mimesis, impersonation, performance
Divisions: Bath School of Music and Performing Arts
Date Deposited: 06 Mar 2013 15:44
Last Modified: 13 Oct 2022 16:19
URI / Page ID:
Request a change to this item or report an issue Request a change to this item or report an issue
Update item (repository staff only) Update item (repository staff only)