If you don’t know who Cindy Sherman is then…well, you’re probably not alone. I don’t mean that in the “she’s a nobody” sense, because in fact, she’s quite the opposite. She’s a photographer with 30+ years under her belt, who has made millions off of her famous self-portraits. What I do mean is this: she’s photographed so many different characters (though they’re all “her”) that it’s hard to tell who the “real” Cindy Sherman is. Her whole life’s work has been centered around dressing up as other people; what does the real Cindy Sherman dress up as? What does she pose for in real life? Some people have a hard time getting an idea of who she really is, because she’s famous for being who she isn’t.
I’m still thinking about her identity (better than having to figure out my own), but in the meantime, I’ve been asked to find a few compelling photos by her, and I’m starting with this one:
titled Untitled Film Still #3 of her Untitled Film Still series. She mentioned that these photos were meant to resemble film stills of European actresses; apparently they were notorious for looking like they were “in the middle” of an action or emotion, so that, in the film still, the anticipated emotion is ambiguous. I think that can definitely be said for this photo. The woman, cooking or about to cook, looks interrupted. By what? The way she rests her head on her tensed shoulders suggests someone (or perhaps a disturbing thought) has entered the scene. The way she holds her hand on her stomach suggests something like fear. Or, hell, maybe she’s just hungry and that’s why she’s cooking. The ambiguity of what has grabbed this bob-haired woman is what makes this photo compelling.
This photo is a part of her historical portrait series (note: other than her Film Stills, she doesn’t title her photos–go figure for someone trying to figure out her identity). It’s particularly interesting because, unlike the majority of her photos, this one shows a (actually fake) breast. It’s a pretty accurate recreation of Renaissance art, I think: a pale woman’s face, void of emotion, revealing herself for some omnipresent gaze, usually of masculine tendencies. I find it interesting that she doesn’t look at the viewer. She looks away, at someone or something else. Now for photo 3:
It’s from a relatively-recent series of photographs in which she wears vintage Chanel (jealous), with stormy landscapes in the background. This photo was interesting to me because of the strange clash of the character and environment; they seem to be of two different worlds. Her gradient opacity and the painting-like quality of the background create a confusing image resembling the nonsensical logic of dreams.
I highly suggest looking into her work; there are literally thousands of portraits of hers to check out. Maybe you can find your own identity in one of her characters.
Well, this is awkward.
Our class has shifted in a different direction: away from Detroit and towards “identity.” The horror! The hypocrisy! What makes us any better than the hundreds of thousands who abandoned Detroit for the safety of the suburbs?! And after all of this time, I thought what we had with Detroit was specialllllllll!
…mainly I’m just concerned with the title of my blog not matching the current theme of the curriculum.
But I’m not going to change it. Our focus on Detroit was not in vain; I’ve learned enough about that wonderful city to have sparked an interest in the pursuit of a better Detroit. I’m not sure specifically what that could mean right now, but don’t think I’m abandoning the city. There’s a lot of growth yet to happen there, both for the city and for myself, I think.
That being said, my blog posts will take a turn in the direction of “identity” from now on. It should be interesting, seeing as I’ve never been able to pin one for myself down, and now I have to post some down into this blog.
At the end of LeDuff’s novel, there is what appears to be a photo essay of Detroit, so that when you close the book, you’re not closing off your connection to the very real plight of the city. The images are imprinted into your head, trailing imprints of color and light, so that when you think of Detroit, you have something to remember it by.
This photo, titled “Packard Plant, East Side,” was especially poignant to me. It’s a sad and candid portrait (or do we call it landscape, here?). There are no “seeds of hope” to be planted into this picture, like we always try to do when we talk about Detroit. While the woman is the focal point of the photograph, she is not mentioned in the title. This suggests that instead of the abandoned Packard being a part of her life and her experiences, she is a part of the Packard plant and all of its rubble.
You wonder where she’s going; is she receding to the recesses of the plant? Is it a shortcut to home, where a warm bed awaits to cover her bare back? Does she even know where she’s going?
The mystery is what makes this photo intriguing. We don’t know, and we’re supposed to accept her as an accessory of the building, like this is part of the normal landscape of the city.
Considering the misplaced boat in the foreground, the useless factory ruins, and the shirtless woman dragging her heels across the rubble, this photo could alternatively be titled, “Washed Up.”
At the end of this week, the influential Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs will be at UMich for the Detroit: a Movement City symposium. How cool and perfect that our class has a focus on her this week! (If you aren’t aware of who she is or just need a refresher, here is a link to her biography.)
As a supplement to the teachings this week, I chose this interview of Mrs. Boggs. In short, she muses about what she thinks Detroit really needs to rebuild itself. Naturally, as a social activist of the Civil Rights Movement era (and all the eras after it), she stresses the importance of involving ourselves and engaging in the problems Detroit faces today; we must rely on ourselves, and not the politicians, to make a change in the world. The only way we can survive, she says, is to help each other out. Because after all, we’re all members of the same tribe: Earth.
“Then power walked in the door: a short, stocky, smooth-skulled black man wearing a full-length leather trench coat accompanied by a tall, large, well-dressed sidekick…
The bald man in the trench coat gave his name to the receptionist: Adolph Mongo.” (60)
LeDuff’s introduction of the controversial Detroit figure Adolph Mongo set him up to be one of the most compelling characters in the novel. It is made clear that although Mongo is sketchy and sneaky, he is also smart. He only pops up in the novel from time to time, and only for brief moments. But when he does, he usually offers candid commentary that is refreshing to the reader (indeed, LeDuff even refers to him as “the inebriated uncle at the funeral shouting all the things people wished they could say.” ), since most of the powerful people in the novel often offer nebulous and circular dialogue or messages in general. Additionally, perhaps he is one of the most compelling characters in the novel because he is one of the few who actually seems to know what he is doing; in a setting where unorganization seems to be flirting with anarchy, Mongo knows what his intentions are how to accomplish them, despite the quality of the morals that accompany those intentions.
We’re in the middle of watching another documentary in class; a film called Urban Roots documents the effects of the growth of urban agriculture in Detroit. The intro, a mini silent film (set to a classic rag on a honky-tonk piano), shows the city in its heyday. A switch to clips of modern (“modern” sounds too positive) Detroit shows just how sharp the contrast is between then and now.
The film details the importance of urban farming in the food-desert of Detroit. Not only do they supply fresh food for the city’s people, but they bring the community together as they work side-by-side in the dirt. And I think that unity sets the basis for change in Detroit. Even if they can’t change what’s happening in the city hall, at least they can boost their morale by seeing the literal fruits of their labor come up each harvest season.
An interesting narrator of the film was a man named Keith Love. (“Love. Keith Love. That’s my real name!”) He told about how he’d been in the ubiquitous “bad place” for a while in life. While I’d hate to gloss over the fact that he “cleaned up,” like it was some easy thing to do, unfortunately I don’t have enough notes to write about that. But, he did clean up, and began working with a community garden. You could see his interest in the business of the garden; in fact, if I’m not mistaken, he seemed to have some authority over at least part of the operation. Seeing Mr. Love so passionate about the delivering of fresh produce to the city of Detroit reminded me of the popular Howard Thurman quote:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
So that’s what I think the urban agriculture movement is doing. I think it’s the sign of new life in Detroit again, like tiny green sprouts popping up after the whole forest has been burned down.
First off, oops. I’m a little late to the party posting this. Can we just call it fashionably late?
Anyway, earlier this week we started Charlie LeDuff’s book Detroit: An American Autopsy. After winning a Pulitzer, working for the New York Times, and having a daughter, LeDuff thought that it would be best to pack up and move back home to Detroit. I’m sure you can imagine his surprise (that’s not an understatement) when he realized what he came back to. He had so many feelings that he wrote this book about it.
Our assignment was to question the authority (Question the authorities?! Yeah! Stick it to the man!!) Charlie LeDuff has to analyze Detroit, as well as address his strengths and weaknesses in his analysis. I thought it was an interesting assignment because it made me question what authority anyone has to analyze anything (lookin’ at you, Fashion Police).
I got over my little moment and considered it. At first, I thought: well, he’s a reporter. Reporters have the power to, as he put it in his book, “parachute” to scenes, report, and fly away. His job writing for the Detroit News allowed him to extensively travel, inspect, and interview all parts of Detroit. Plus, he was raised in Livonia and spent much of his childhood experiencing Detroit directly, through his own experiences, and indirectly, in the ways it affected the people in his life. He knows what Detroit was, sees what is now, and I think that by taking the time to actually write about it, he’s indicating that he thinks there’s something left to be made of of it. One could conclude that LeDuff’s credibility comes from the fact that he’s no stranger to the city. Additionally, the fact that he is both an outsider and a native to Detroit allows him to offer more than one perspective on the city of Detroit.
So, I’ll let him write the book. He’s got some authority to.
But…can he write it…well?! A Pulitzer in his backpocket would like to say that he can. In class we pointed out a few potential weaknesses that should be noted, though. While his attachment to the city is beneficial in some ways, others may also view it as bias in his writing. Some may worry that he can’t be objective about writing. His writing can sometimes have that propaganda-y feel to it. A little online research brings up some sketchy allegations of plagiarism. But the worst weakness of them all? Sometimes he even seems to portray himself as a (wait for it) badass.
I don’t know, though. Pretty weak arguments. He writes with a relatively “realist” tone, so I don’t think he’s bias in any way. For what he’s going for, you don’t need to be objective. Considering Detroit’s state, it’s probably not propaganda. Regarding the plagiarism, he openly denied any dishonest actions and was backed by his boss. His language is entertaining, true or not. And maybe he does portray himself as a badass, but maybe he is.
Have you seen his goatee?
Form your own opinion of him. Use this video to help you out.