Text from an essay by Amada Cruz in Cindy Sherman: Retrospective
Movies, Monstrosities, and Masks: Twenty Years of Cindy ShermanCindy Sherman began her now famous series Untitled Film Stills twenty years ago at the end of 1977 Those small black-and-white photographs of Sherman impersonating various female character types from old B movies and film noir spoke to a generation of baby boomer women who had grown up absorbing those glamorous images at home on their televisions, taking such portrayals as cues for their future. With each subsequent series of photographs, Sherman has imitated and confronted assorted representational tropes, exploring the myriad ways in which women and the body are depicted by effective contemporary image-makers, including the mass media and historical sources such as fairy tales, portraiture, and surrealist photography.
Born in New Jersey and raised in suburban Long Island, Sherman attended the State University College at Buffalo, New York, where she initially studied painting. In an interview with Noriko Fuku, she speaks of her college years. Her paintings at the time were self-portraits and realistic copies of images she found in magazines and photographs. She failed the requisite introductory photography course because of her difficulties with the technological aspects of making a print, and she credits her next photography teacher with introducing her to conceptual art, which had a liberating effect on her. It was at this time that Sherman first encountered contemporary art, via fellow students such as Robert Longo.
Untitled Film Stills, 1977-80Upon graduation in 1977, Sherman and Longo moved to New York. She continued her role-playing in different guises and began photographing the results in their apartment, as in Untitled Film Still #10; in outdoor locations in New York City, as in Untitled Film Still #21; in Long Island in Untitled Film Still #9; and in the Southwest in Untitled Film Still #43. Sherman took most of the photographs, but some were shot by friends and family. The complete series was first exhibited at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC in 1995, and in the brochure for that show, Phyllis Rosenzweig discusses the relationships between the works. Similar characters appear in several photographs, resulting in mini series within the larger group. For example, the first six images feature the same blonde actress at different points in her career. In each picture, Sherman depicts herself alone, as a familiar but unidentifiable film heroine in an appropriate setting. The characters include a floozy in a slip with a martini glass in Untitled Film Still #7; a perky B-movie librarian in Untitled Film Still #13; a young secretary in the city in Untitled Film Still #21; a voluptuous, lower-class woman from an Italian neo-realist film in Untitled Film Still #35; an innocent runaway in Untitled Film Still #48; and a film noir victim in Untitled Film Still #54. In works such as Untitled Film Still #15 and Untitled Film Still #34, Sherman appears as a seductress. Speaking of one such image, she has said, "to pick a character like that was about my own ambivalence about sexuality-growing up with the women role models that I had, and a lot of them in films, that were like that character, and yet you were supposed to be a good girl."
Since Sherman's characters in the Untitled Film Stills are not specified, we are free to construct our own narratives for these women. Sherman encourages our participation by suggesting, through the deliberate nature of her poses, that she is the object of someone's gaze. The voyeuristic nature of these images and their filmic associations encourage a psychoanalytical reading of these works as illustrations of Laura Mulvey's renowned 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," which describes the image of woman onscreen as the subject of the controlling male gaze and the object of masculine desire. Sherman's Untitled Film Stills not only imply our own and the camera's gazes but at times hint at the presence of another person in the room with her, as in Untitled Film Still #10, Untitled Film Still #14, and Untitled Film Still #65.
Numbering 69 in total, the Untitled Film Stills present an array of types, which, according to Judith Williamson in Consuming Passions, "force upon the viewer that elision of image and identity which women experience all the time: as if a sexy black dress made you be a femme fatale, whereas 'femme fatale' is precisely an image, it needs a viewer to function at all." Williamson goes on to say that Sherman's work implicates the viewer in the construction of these identities while gazing at the images but, by offering so many characters, Sherman undermines this attempt to fix her image according to our desires."
Desire mixed with nostalgia fuels the allure of the Untitled Film Stills: desire for the woman depicted as well as desire to be that woman, during that time. Considering the sources for the series, this potent mix is inevitable. In his study of the series, Arthur Danto points out that film stills are not isolated frames from movies but rather reenactments that are used to advertise a film and, as advertisements, they are meant to stimulate enough interest to sell tickets. "The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told." As with any film still, performance is at the core of Sherman's images, and Danto attributes their success as being "simultaneously and inseparably photographs and performances."
[This is only the first portion of this brilliant essay, which is only one of the articles in Cindy Sherman: Retrospective. These writings, along with the numerous high quality reproductions, make this volume essential reading for any admirer of Ms. Sherman's work.]
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