The New York Times recently published an article on photographer Cindy Sherman that focused on her most recent work, which is being exhibited for the first time in New York City this month. Throughout her 40-year career, Sherman has made photographs using herself as a model. At the time that her "Film Stills" series was catapulting her to fame, she stated that these portraits were not “about” her. By this she meant that they did not contain any autobiographical content, and that the viewer should not expect to understand anything about her as a private individual by looking at the pictures. Up to now, she has always maintained that stance about all of her work.
But the New York Times article raised my eyebrows when I read the lines, "...she is now willing to see aspects of herself even in her early photos."
This shift is significant, and I’m sure will lead to much discussion among critics, art historians, and students of her work. Sherman herself attributes this change in her own assessment of her past work to the fact that she is now older (62, to be specific) and looks back at that work from a different perspective than she had when she was younger.
This makes sense to me. As we age, there is often a natural evolution in how we see ourselves. We look back at our own history and ask ourselves, “How could I have been so naïve/courageous/stupid/bold? Why did I do that? Why didn’t I do that? What was I thinking?!” and myriad other questions.
In the case of art, one of the most valuable actions I have taken in recent years has been to look back through my archives every once in a while and try to understand my older work in a new way. With the passage of time, new life experiences help me to understand my younger creative self better, and in different ways that were invisible to me before. I’m glad that I have kept a lot of my early work so I can study it in this way.
I would encourage any artist to do so. If you don’t have the space to keep a lot of original artwork, then keep what is most important/significant to you and digitize as much of the rest of it as you can. Looking at digital reproductions of your artwork is not even close to being the same as looking at the originals, but it is the next best thing, and certainly better than nothing. In this way, you can haul out as much or as little of your past creative history as you want, whenever you want, and learn from yourself about yourself.
The older you get and the more you have to look back on, the more threads you will find that connect the various bodies of work that you have done and the better you will understand your creative voice as it has evolved.