Cindy Sherman Art History Lesson

Cindy Sherman photography/art history lesson for kids.

This Cindy Sherman art history lesson introduces kids to the world of self-portraits with a fun, prop-based photography project.

Who was Cindy Sherman?

Cindy Sherman is renowned as one of the most influential contemporary artists, recognized primarily for her groundbreaking contributions to photography and her exploration of identity and societal constructs.

Born on January 19, 1954, in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, Sherman’s career spans over four decades.

Much like her contemporary, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman consistently challenged conventional notions of portraiture and representation.

Sherman’s early fascination with visual storytelling led her to study at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she delved into painting, performance art, and conceptual art.

However, it was through photography that she found her true voice. In the mid-1970s, Sherman began her groundbreaking “Untitled Film Stills” series, which catapulted her to international acclaim. In this series, she assumed various personas, dressing up and posing as characters inspired by 1950s and 1960s Hollywood and European cinema. Through these images, Sherman explored the construction of female identity in mass media, scrutinizing its clichés and stereotypes.

What distinguishes Sherman’s work is her ability to transform herself completely for each photograph. Without the aid of professional makeup artists or elaborate sets, she meticulously crafts each image, embodying diverse roles that challenge viewers’ perceptions.

Through her use of costumes, props, and prosthetics, Sherman creates a sense of ambiguity, prompting viewers to question the authenticity of the image and the nature of representation itself.

As Sherman’s career progressed, she continued to push boundaries, exploring themes of aging, consumer culture, and the artifice of beauty.

Throughout her career, Sherman has remained fiercely independent, resisting categorization and commercial pressures. She has experimented with various techniques, from large-scale color photographs to digitally manipulated images, always pushing the boundaries of the medium.

Despite her prolific output, Sherman has maintained a sense of anonymity, rarely granting interviews or revealing personal details about herself. This enigmatic quality has only added to the intrigue surrounding her work, allowing viewers to project their own interpretations onto her photographs.

Sherman’s impact extends far beyond the realm of photography. Her work has inspired generations of artists across disciplines, from performance art to fashion. She has been the subject of numerous retrospectives and exhibitions at prestigious institutions around the world, solidifying her status as a visionary artist of unparalleled influence.

Cindy Sherman’s life and work exemplify the power of art to challenge, provoke, and inspire. Through her innovative approach to photography, she has revolutionized the medium and expanded the possibilities of self-expression.

Her relentless exploration of identity and representation continues to resonate with audiences.

Key Vocabulary & Definitions

Conceptual art: Conceptual art refers to a genre of art in which the concept or idea behind the work holds greater significance than the finished product. It often involves the use of language, symbols, or unconventional materials to convey artistic concepts and challenge traditional notions of art.

Contemporary: Contemporary in the context of art refers to the present time or the period of art produced by artists living and working in the current era. Contemporary art often reflects current social, political, and cultural issues and encompasses a diverse range of styles, techniques, and mediums.

Exhibition: An exhibition is a public display or presentation of artwork, usually held in a gallery, museum, or other cultural institution. Exhibitions provide artists with the opportunity to showcase their work to a broader audience and engage with viewers in a curated space.

Medium: In art, medium refers to the materials or tools used by an artist to create a work of art. This can include paint, clay, charcoal, digital software, or any other substance or technique employed in the creative process. The choice of medium can significantly impact the final appearance and meaning of an artwork.

Portraiture: Portraiture is the genre of art focused on depicting the likeness of a specific individual or group of people. Portraits can vary widely in style and technique, ranging from realistic representations to abstract interpretations, and have been a prominent subject in art throughout history.

Props: Props are objects or items used by artists, actors, or performers to enhance the visual or narrative elements of a composition or performance. In the context of photography or filmmaking, props may include costumes, furniture, accessories, or any other objects used to create a specific scene or atmosphere.

Fine Art Photography & Framing Project for Kids

I made this a 2-part project and did the photo prop portion as part of my Nan Goldin lesson.

But if you skip the framing part, you can do it in one.  Just know that it takes some time and you’ll want to break it up into two class periods either way.


*camera (any camera, including a smartphone camera)

*photo props (costumes, masks, smoke bombs, ect)



*thrift store frames (any size)

*acrylic or craft paint




Step 1:  Pick a prop.

A prop based photography project for kids.

Offer the kids an array of fun props and invite them to choose one for their photos.

Step 2:  Take photos.

Find some good light—we used the shadow of the school building.  The shadow of a large building is a great place to find nice, even light!

Step 3:  Print photos.

If you plan to move on to Step 3 & 4, all you need to do is remember to print the photos any size smaller than the frame.

We printed the photos in black and white, which gave the bright, poppy colors of the frames we painted later some punch.  But you may want to show the kids how to experiment with basic filters or even as a segue into a more complex lesson on photo editing.

Step 4 (optional):  Pick a frame & paint it.

Fun framing project for elementary students.

When you’re picking up frames from the thrift store, don’t worry about the size!  We’re going to “matte” the photos, so it won’t matter that much.

Step 5 (optional):  Matte the photo with posterboard.

Remove the cardboard backing of the frame and use it to trace a matte from posterboard.

(Obviously, this is not a true matte.  But mattes are expensive, and this is a kid’s project.  Plus, if you use this method, it won’t matter what frame you get at the thrift store).

And voila!

Fun, prop-based photography project for kids.


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