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Cindy Sherman and her 'Untitled Film Stills'

Photographic chameleon, Cindy Sherman, has been dubbed one of the most influential contemporary artists of her time. Her series, ‘Untitled Film Stills’, is a series of 70 black and white photographs of herself as an array of characters based upon female performers in arthouse films and low budget movies. The series, captured between 1977-1980, brought Sherman to the forefront of contemporary art and achieved international recognition for its interesting and sometimes controversial ideology.

Her photographs are a fine balance between self-portraiture and film stills in style. Although film stills are ordinarily captured on the scene of a working production, Sherman’s works are captured in scenes in her apartment and public spaces and as such, Sherman’s stills were naturally lower quality. Typically film stills are used for publicity for new releases, she intended on her works being ‘cheap and trashy’ and Sherman herself expressed her intention for the images to be akin to ‘something you’d find in a novelty store and buy for a quarter’.

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The American artist poses as different roles, from librarian to seductress, amongst varying settings producing stills reminiscent of film noir and Italian neorealism due to her use of non-professional models and the poor, working class demeanour portrayed. To preserve ambiguity, Sherman did not title her images.

Each image features Sherman fully committed to her costume, makeup and expectant posing, characterising archetypal female characters from familiar Hollywood films of the 50s and 60s, yet are impossible to place. #54 (top, right) is a classic example of this, Sherman is this time a classic Alfred Hitchcock blonde in the distinctive style of Kim Novak, an American actress from the 50s through to 1991.

Her images are largely made up of her female characters alone in the frame. These characters are often referred to as heroines when discussing Sherman’s work due to their defiant nature. Throughout the series, femininity is often perceived as a force to be reckoned with, a concept that was both bold and daring for the time. As mentioned, her characters are often pictured alone, in private and seemingly expressionless. An overarching theme for her doppelgängers is that they stray from conventional ideas such and marriage and family, women who were rebellious and either would die that way or become tamed by society. Her stills also use a lot of props, often her own possessions or in some cases borrowed from friends, like the dog pillow in #11 (bottom, right).

Compared to Sherman’s later works, specifically her Ilfochrome work, ‘Untitled Film Stills’ is modest in size; modest being the key word as this translates directly as to how her characters oppose being viewed. All the images in this series are presented as 8.5 by 11 inch prints in identical black frames. Does this uniformity act as yet another social commentary towards the vastly ‘same-same’ attitude of how women fit into the society of Sherman’s time?

The series itself is a progression from the initial six images being grainy and a touch out of focus (#4, on left) to better quality works out in the streets of New York (#21, on right).

Sherman’s work is often linked with feminism since her photos call to the objectification of women in the media, something further ventured in her ‘Centerfolds’ series. Sherman has acknowledged that her stills could be viewed as feminist work but doesn’t consider herself or her works directly to be so, stating, “hoping it’s seen as feminist work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff”. This statement, though it almost guarantees that Sherman did not intend on conveying messages of ‘abolish the patriarchy’, indirectly makes the unintentional feminist messages much more potent. Should it not be considered that this, in its own right, adds an extra layer of strength to these images that manage to invoke such strong responses without the photographer necessarily trying?

Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Still #48’ is a mysterious, thought-provoking image that uses techniques such as leading lines and subject-to-ground contrast to create tension and a sense of the unknown.

Sherman places herself on a desolate road which overlooks a stretching view of the countryside around her. The road acts as a leading line, drawing the viewer further in the image towards the centre of the frame. This line is broken by it’s own curvature, as the road leads behind a hill, creating a sense of the unknown.

This unknowing is the driving force of the image as there are many different aspects of the photo that we are not sure of; this is how Sherman achieves a moody image.

Sherman is facing away from the camera, and despite knowing it is her, we are left wondering and yearning for more information about this character that she presents. We do not know her mood, nor do we have any strong indicators of her age which could help determine the story of this image. We can only imagine the circumstance she is in; perhaps she is awaiting a friend or partner so that they can run away together and that is why she has her suitcase and is wearing trainers with an otherwise feminine, pretty outfit? The ignorance of the who, where and why of this image makes it feel intrusive, almost as though we have stumbled upon a secret.

Furthermore, the view of the area in the background is very unclear, which makes it difficult to place this scene. The blacks have been crushed and this reduces the clarity. Not only does this build the sense of the unknown, but also makes the image more relatable. By not being able to specifically place this location, Sherman achieves a familiar yet impossible to place effect, this means viewers can have their own thoughts on where this was shot. Incorporating this effect makes the image feel more personal.

The contrast between Sherman and the rest of the image creates dynamic tension; it amplifies the sense of her character waiting. As mentioned, we do not know how long she has been waiting, but this contrast combined with her posed facing away from the camera, holding her hands behind her produces the idea that she has been waiting for some time. This leads the viewer to question the characters emotions, is she disappointed that she has not been picked up yet, is she angry, perhaps she could still be hopeful? All the emotions can each be further developed through the crushed blacks and bright whites within the image, as well as the leading nature of the road.

‘Untitled Film Still #92’ (left) presents differing themes. Looking as though is has been taken straight out of a horror movie, Sherman presents us with a character whose emotions are clear. Staring past the camera, this character looks fearful which forces us to question why. Sherman fills the frame in this image so we do not have the luxury of more information, a technique she often uses to create mood and tension.

This time, Sherman has shot in colour, though this does not provide us with much more information other than the costume seeming somewhat school girl-esque. The connotations of a school girl, fearfully sprawled on the ground are sinister. Has this girl been hurt, or is she going to be? The main overarching question however: who/what is she looking at? 

The wooden floorboards in the background are the only sense of location. We could assume the character is in a house which could be hers or someone else’s.

The use of direct, white lighting on Sherman’s face adds to the ‘out of a horror film’ style and develops the tension as it comes across as harsh and menacing. Overall, the image does seem quite sinister with Sherman’s expression and the questions forced to the forefront of our minds. 

First Image: Directly inspired by Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Still #21’, this image is thought provoking in contrasting ways to that of Sherman’s. ‘#21’ presents the viewer with a precise and authoritative image of a woman amongst the concrete jungle of New York, the above image is a contrasting view of this. Although not captured in New York, the high-rise buildings in the background suggest a similar thing. Opposite to Sherman’s image, the male model is facing away from the camera. This creates a shyness about him, but also leave the question of ‘who is he?’ and ‘why is he there?’.

This time the model is much more prominent within the frame, despite being anonymous, the only link to his identity would be that of the first image, but without that this model could be anyone; forcing viewers to subconsciously identify with the image.

Both the first and this image were shot at the same location, this is a strong point to mention as from looking at the images you would not know this, thus creating a sense of Alice in Wonderland syndrome with this disorientation.

Second Image: The best way to describe this image would be as a fatigued yearning indicating hope and promise. This is further enhanced by the bright sky and upward angle of the image, yet tired from reaching and believing for so long. Though only the model’s arm is present within this photograph, we can gather a sense of self and an idea of how this person either had or has goals and aspirations. Almost seamlessly linking to the first image, this image paints a picture of insignificance. This lowly nature could be towards the goal, or thing the model is reaching towards for so long and also a direct reflection of the model themselves. The subordination of the model goes as far as not having him in the frame at all, amplifying his secondary status.

The arm is framed in the centre of the image with a whole background negative space. This negative space heightens the perceived importance of this reach whilst also detracting from it by making it seem so small and trivial. Furthermore, the subject-to-ground contrast adds clarity to the arm, portraying the reaching aspect as the logical and level-minded thing to do, something that could reflect how society teaches us to aim for high standards which, in some circumstances, are unachievable resulting in a tiresome future of disappointment.

Third Image: Yet another powerful image portraying somewhat controversial ideas that oppose societal belief, akin to the work of Sherman; by shooting upwards this image captures the model in a powerful position. She is seemingly holding up the crumbling structure around her with a single hand. Antonymous with societies perception of weak and feeble femininity, this photograph defines women as a force to be reckoned with as they work effortlessly to pick up the pieces of our brittle world. The model expresses no sign of exhaustion or weariness in this act which only exaggerates her strength and power.

The model, on the most part, near enough fills the frame; this highlights the magnitude of her role within the photo. The lack of distractions around her through the full frame composite once again reinforces the idea of her being the singularly important thing in the frame, leaving viewers neglecting the fact that the area around her is dishevelled and collapsing in upon itself. The idea that she should hide the broken nature of her home, for lack of better words, creates a hoodwinked feeling.

Fourth Image: A stark difference to the previous image, the model here is weakened and vulnerable, remaining within the boundaries of her femininity as defined by society.

Using the same technique to the first image, the model is delicately positioned in the bottom right corner of the frame, almost barely there at all. Instead of this suggesting insignificance however, this amplifies the sadness suggesting by her sorrowful expression.

Framed amongst the break in the brickwork, the model breaks the pattern causing an unsettling feeling and also draws attention to the gap in the wall. This gap could reflect a gap in the model’s life, perhaps she’s lost a loved one or even feels a part of herself is missing? Either way, having the model positioned this way provokes the viewer to ask questions that pull upon stereotypical themes of heartbreak and loneliness.