I first encountered Cindy Sherman’s work in the Tate Gallery, London, in the 1980s. It was a colour photograph of a young woman sitting in front of a mirror. The title of which I can’t remember. My first impression of the photograph was of its cinematic qualities. Although clearly staged, the image could easily have been a still from a movie or tv drama. The young woman’s body language and facial expression was such, that you felt you had walked into a scene mid-action. Who was she? Where was she? What had just happened before I arrived? I knew there was something unique about this image, but couldn’t put my finger on it. It left me guessing. I had to fill in the blanks for myself, in an experience that has remained with me ever since.
Now, thirty years later, I feel more able to understand what Cindy Sherman is doing in that image I discovered in the Tate Gallery, and her inspiring black and white series ‘Untitled Film Stills’ from the late 1970s.
When seen as a whole, you quickly become aware that in these images Sherman has assembled a series of cliches, in which the fictional ‘blonde bombshell’ enacts a range of cultural roles, such as the housewife, the career girl, the chic starlet, the sophisticated woman. What’s particularly significant about the way in which Sherman renders these roles within the images is that, rather than simply using them as raw material or subject matter, she draws upon ‘a whole artistic vocabulary, ready-made’ (MoMA, exhibition notes). That’s what fascinates me most about Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’. The way in which she uses a ready-made artistic vocabulary drawn from popular film culture to communicate something quite profound about female identity within a still image.
“While the pictures can be appreciated individually, much of their significance comes in the endless variation of identities from one photograph to the next. As a group they explore the complexity of representation in a world saturated with images, and refer to the cultural filter of images (moving and still) through which we see the world.” (MoMA, interactive exhibition guide)
The first thing I saw when looking at Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ were the cinematic techniques employed within the images: the lighting, framing, camera angle, etc. All of which make up a relevant component of the images, but not the main one. It wasn’t until after carrying out further research into the series that I realised how complex these images really were (both collectively and individually) and that, in making the artist the subject of these images, each of Sherman’s stills embody and represent much more than the replication of a promotional still for a movie.
EXT. DAY – NEW YORK
‘Untitled Film Still’ #21
As with all good filmmaking, what you see inside the frame has been put there for a reason. Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ are no different. In ‘Untitled Film Still’ #21 we have a frame which could easily pass for a transitional shot in a 1960s movie. In the foreground, a woman in suit and hat is separated from the background, a Manhattan-style skyline, through the controlled use of shallow depth of field. A low, slightly tilted camera angle places her in the centre of the image, looking at something beyond the frame in what might be fear, anxiety or disgust, we’re not quite sure. The head and shoulders shot, a close up, also reveals enough of the background to set the context and tone of the image. However, although we have character and setting within the image, that’s as far as it goes. There are no more narrative signs within the sparsely composed image, other than the sophisticated woman standing on what could be a Manhattan street.
INT. DAY – KITCHEN
‘Untitled Film Still’ #3
‘Untitled Film Still’ #3 offers a similarly sparse, but controlled composition, also in the style of a 1960s movie still. In a carefully constructed wide shot, in which the various visual elements within the composition are placed in a banal domestic setting in accordance with the rule of thirds, we see a woman wearing an apron standing at a kitchen sink. Surrounded by household items (a dish washing bottle, drying rack and a spice jar on a shelf) she looks back over her shoulder at someone or something out of frame, while holding a hand to her stomach. A shallow depth of field throws a pan handle and small container in the foreground out of focus. Again, the character’s gaze suggests an unknown narrative.
Both images raise questions around the issue of female identity. Particularly around the question of whether female identity is culturally imposed or freely chosen. Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ challenges the way in which we view the role of being a woman. Through the act of turning the camera on herself, and directing and photographing the images through a vocabulary of popular film culture, she shows that being a women is a masquerade, a performance, something that you can freely choose and construct for yourself.
Looking at Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ in this way has shown me that both still and moving images are highly complex representations. It has shown me that rather than using the moving image as a way of merely representing issues on screen, I can actually engage with and define my own view of those issues through the moving image. It has also opened up the potential of creating meaningful non-narrative, poetic films within my own filmmaking practice.
Museum of Modern Art (1997) The Complete Untitled Film Stills Cindy Sherman. At: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1997/sherman/ (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)
Museum of Modern Art (2012) Interactive exhibition guide. At: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/gallery/2/mobile.php (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)
Museum of Modern Art Learning (s.d.) Untitled Film Still #21. At: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/cindy-sherman-untitled-film-stills-1977-80 (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Untitled Film Still #21 (1978) Cindy Sherman. [Film still] Museum of Modern Art, New York
Figure 2. Untitled Film Still #3 (1977) Cindy Sherman. [Film still] Museum of Modern Art, New York