The Value of Self-Portrait Photography: Cindy Sherman's Record Setting Image

Sherman's Untitled 153 (1981) broke the record this week for the most expensive photograph sold at auction
A significant milestone was reached last week when a Cindy Sherman photograph displaced Andreas Gursky’s previous record as the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction. Sold for a staggering 3.89 million dollars, the art work in question, Untitled 153, features a stunning self-portrait of Sherman clutching a personal ad in her right hand as she reclines seductively on a kitchen floor (see image above). At first glance, an image like this may be mistaken for any number of similar self-portrait projects that permeate contemporary art exhibitions today—the subtle pose, the air of the banal, and the deliberate play of cinematic lighting and staging that translates a snap shot image to something of greater substance or implied narrative meaning. The image’s performative gesture however is also crucial as the viewer’s awareness is focused on the careful staging that goes into the final photograph. This is a photograph that declares its constructed nature-- it is a photograph about the nature of photography.

But the date of the work – 1981—reminds us just how long-standing, influential, and thoroughly relevant the aesthetic of Sherman’s photographic self-portrait projects remain. These are images that speak to a culture of accelerated technological mediation and the tension between real life and “on-line” identities. As art historian Amelia Jones argues in her research related to the self-portrait photograph as a technology of embodiment, “The photographic self‐portrait is like history or the memory that forms it: it never stands still but, rather, takes its meaning from an infinite stream of future engagements wherein new desires and fascinations produce new contours for the subject depicted.”

Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II (2001)
In this sense, Sherman’s photograph has many thematic connections to the work it ceremoniously displaced, Gursky’s 99 Cent II (2001). Gursky’s is a photographic work focused on the superficial display of consumer goods, digitally manipulated to reduce perspective. In many ways, it is a self-portrait of a different kind, carefully reflecting the process of reification and new subjectivities engendered by our contemporary culture. It is also a meta-narrative that acts as a nice counterpoint to the much more intimate portrait provided by Sherman’s Untitled 153. Whatever the case may be, female artists and photography enthusiasts alike can rejoice for the moment in the landmark valuation of both the medium and one of its most important contemporary pioneers.    

Further Reading:

Henry Brown, David. “Look at Me: Self-Portrait Photography After Cindy Sherman” PAJ: A Journal of Performance Art 22.3 (2000): 47-56.