With just holding my body in a certain way, or how the light hit me, I could create this different thing -- just me in front of the camera.

-- Cindy Sherman

That "just me" is one of the grander simplifications in the history of contemporary art. There isn't a single Cindy Sherman, there's a multiplicity of personas, both in her work and in her career, some mythic, some real, many invented, one replacing another in a dizzying sleight-of-eye.

Sherman is at once a major artist of our time, the most artful impersonator since Lon Chaney, and a gifted actress whose skills are very much part of her work. Equally important, she is a visual anthropologist and historian who mines the endless lore of imagery -- photography, film and video -- that has become the mythic air we breathe.

Her work is a dazzling series of self-portraits, perhaps the most extensive examples of self-scrutiny in an age of self-scrutiny. Narcissistic, voyeuristic and unabashedly star-struck, her photographs gild psychological melodrama with subtle and ambiguous layers of popular culture. Most of these portraits are of women, although lately there's evidence she's impersonating men.

And who is the "real" Cindy Sherman? Undoubtedly, the artist herself, the Sherman without a mask, the least-known persona, who sits in the center of a maelstrom of international acclaim, money, and all the other sweaty accoutrements of superstardom: a small, rather ordinary-looking, "painfully shy" 32-year-old resident of Manhattan who grew up watching TV in a Long Island suburb.A few statistics from a remarkable career, notable even in a time of instantaneous success:

A decade ago, Sherman had just received her bachelor's in photography from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Four years later she had her first New York show at the fashionable East Village gallery Metro Pictures, which continues to represent her. But the volcano really erupted in 1983 -- Sherman exhibited her work in Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Houston and Paris, and still had time to mount a solo show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Solo shows followed in Berlin, Munich and Tokyo. Include group shows in this cataloguing and you'd run out of pins to stick in the map. By 1984 Sherman had participated in more than 10 major museum shows, including ones at the Whitney, the Metropolitan, the Hirshhorn and the Tate Gallery in London. And 1987 will see the installation of her Akron Museum of Art show at the Whitney Museum in New York. She will be the first living photographer that museum has honored.

The future Whitney show and the source of these observations is a major exhibition titled simply "Cindy Sherman," which originated at the Akron art museum in 1984 and has since traveled to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Des Moines and now Baltimore (until Aug. 3). Seventy-five photographs covering almost the entire span of the artist's career -- from the near-campy black-and-white "film stills" of 1977 to the somber and terrifying costume melodramas of 1985 -- have been handsomely installed in four large galleries of the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's an intelligent installation, leading you chronologically through the work so you can see its natural progression and maturation.

It is work in which contradictions and coincidences abound. For example, although Sherman has worked exclusively in photography, many photographers are tentative about embracing her as one of their own. Perhaps it's her dizzying success (a Sherman print can sell for $10,000), or her declared indifference to photography's tradition. "If I had a history," she has said, "it was watching TV and home movies."

Like Gilbert and George, Eleanor Antin or Lucas Samaras, she sees photography as just a means to an end, and like David Hockney, she calls her work "art" first and photography second, even though all her work depends upon, and in some cases plays against, the illusion of reality inherent in a photograph. Without that illusion, her work probably would be little more than handsome theater posters.

Sherman is that most contemporary of photographers, one who doesn't do her own printing and on occasion doesn't even take her own pictures. This is not to say she isn't in control. Her work is very much in the fashionable "directorial mode" -- that is, she doesn't prowl the street in search of chance like an earlier generation of photographers but creates the image in the studio, often improvising during the act of photographing. The credits of a Sherman photograph might read "cast, conceived, choreographed, designed, written, edited, directed by and starring Cindy Sherman."

She's good enough to be a real actress.

-- Andy Warhol

Warhol, with his usual disarming directness, touches the core of Sherman's talent with his comment on her acting. She's not just a good actress, she's a superb and utterly convincing actress -- she convinces us of the truth of her character much the way her medium, photography, convinces us that what we're seeing existed in time and space as reality. The actor is a commonplace presence in video and film but not in still photography, and that's part of the surprise of the work.

The roles Sherman assigns herself are ambiguous (words are not used as an aid in these untitled works), and this ambiguity is another quality shared with the photographic image. Each of her pictures is a story, but a story you have to complete yourself, drawing from your own -- not Sherman's -- experience. It is the viewer as collaborator, a common enough phenomenon in our postmodern times. But while some art demands the knowledge of a connoisseur, Sherman's does not. She draws from a well from which we all drink: the Brothers Grimm, TV commercials, bedroom scenes from True Detective, family album snapshots, horror movies . . .

In her early work, she adopts roles of social and cultural feminist stereotypes: the restless housewife ("Untitled Film Still #3"), the lonely teen-ager (#80 series, 1981), the starry-eyed country girl just arrived in Hollywood ("Untitled Film Still #1"). As her color work becomes more and more monumental, ambiguous stereotypes become androgynous icons.

The actress becomes Marilyn Monroe (or is it Doris Day?), Elizabeth Taylor or maybe Liza Minnelli (no, it must be Judy Garland). Natalie Wood in "Rebel Without a Cause" slides into Mick Jagger, who in another image becomes Joan of Arc ("Untitled #109"). Chameleon-like, the Sherman alter ego ages, grows young, gets fat, changes sex, becomes gaunt and haunted one minute, chic as a fashion model the next.

If these photographs were just clever examples of role playing and satire, Cindy Sherman would be an interesting photographer with a promising future, someone to keep an eye on as she matured. After all, she's not the first photographer to play with props -- in her case, sweat from a bottle, wigs, fake noses -- and not the first to play "dress-up" in front of a camera.

What makes this body of work special is, first, its consistency -- stay with any idea for 10 years and it's likely to develop some authority, some resonance. Second, and more important, is its psychological edge, the work's subtext, the subterranean emotion beneath the surface of trenchant cultural and social comment.

It is often said (by Sherman herself, among others) that although she's the model in all of her photographs, they are not self-portraits -- that is, they are not overtly autobiographical. That may be literally true, but they certainly seem autobiographical in psychological terms, particularly the 1981 series of large (2 feet by 4 feet) horizontal color images scaled proportionally like a Cinemascope screen (#85 through #96). These pictures show adolescent girls (often lying on beds, a constant theme) immersed in an oppressive solitude that is almost palpable with desire. They seem the most personal of all of Sherman's works.

Photography is a kind of primitive theatre . . . a tableau vivant, figuration of the made-up and motionless face beneath which we see the dead.

-- Roland Barthes

In the last gallery, particularly in the photographs from 1985, Sherman enacts various roles plucked from myth and legend, imbued with an aura that seems like a mingling of old horror films and Kabuki. But the result is anything but camp. Now the colors are poisonous, dark and dread. Characters and costumes could be from the land of Grimm or the commedia dell'arte or a night or two from the Thousand and One.

Scheherazade dances in one image with glittering teeth and plastic breasts. In another a lustful princess of the Nile glares out at us. In another, a bald person crouching in a wheat field seems a bizarre combination of Richard Widmark and Pearl Buck. Faces age and decay, and in two of the images madness and fear finally erupt and flow like lava over the surface of the picture, eradicating cultural references.

A dark, foreboding blue, # 140 is a descent into a netherworld in which a pig-snouted creature lies, moist, fearful and dank. In a companion picture, a woman, orangish and extremely foreshortened, lies under a plastic tarpaulin. It's the woman on the bed, subject of so many earlier incarnations. But this time her dark features are a mask of snarling madness.

A somber and chilling coda to a masterful exhibition.