Complex representations: Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (1977-80)

Fig. 1. Untitled Film Still #21 (1978)
Fig. 2. Untitled Film Still #3 (1977)









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.

Reseach Journal


‘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.

‘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: (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)

Museum of Modern Art (2012) Interactive exhibition guide. At: (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)

Museum of Modern Art Learning (s.d.) Untitled Film Still #21. At: (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

Cindy Sherman, Roman Signer & the Stanford Prison Experiment

The clothes people wear have a specific character and they say something about roles and purposes. They tell us about age, class, culture, profession and history. They also inform creative ideas and influence artistic choices. Here are three contrasting representations of clothes, and the roles that are attached with them.

‘Doll Clothes’, Cindy Sherman (1975) 

Short black and white animated silent film by American artist Cindy Sherman.

Doll Clothes presents a photograph of the artist – Cindy Sherman – as a paper doll that has come to life, trying on multiple outfits before a mirror. After each costume change a hand intrudes from the corner of the screen, putting the doll and her dress back in their plastic album sleeves. The repetition of posing followed by powerlessness reflects Sherman’s ongoing fascination with the politics of identity and representation, particularly in relation to women.’

(Tate Gallery label, 2011)


Roman Signer, performance works

Performance related work using hats and sheets by Swiss artist Roman Signer.


A black hat and a pink sheet are fired into the air using small rockets and explosives. Taken out of their original context and used within a performance context, they are seen as abstract objects rather than items of clothing and bedding.


Stanford Prison Experiment

A simulation of prison life conducted in 1971 at Stanford University. The experiment was terminated after only two weeks because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated.

“In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” (Professor Philio G. Zimbardo,

“I began to feel I was losing my identity […] I was 416. I was really my number.” (Prisoner 416,


In her short film 'Doll Clothes', Cindy Sherman uses paper cut-outs of various blouses, jeans, jumpers and dresses, organised in several plastic album sleeves. Through a repeating animated sequence, a paper doll (a photographic representation of the artist) comes to life, dresses in the cut-out clothes and poses in front of a mirror on a dressing table, before being stripped of her clothes by a disembodied pair of hands and replaced along with her clothes back into the plastic album sleeves.

In Roman Signer’s performance works, hats and sheets are used as objects to be propelled into the sky. In one work, rows of yellow hard hats are fired simultaneously into the sky, creating a random scattering of colour before falling back to the ground. In another work, a man standing wears a black woollen hat covering his head and eyes. The hat, attached to a small rocket by a length of string, is fired into the sky. The man looks up, following its upward trajectory. In a third work, one end of a pink sheet is fired into the sky, its full length spreading out, before falling back to the ground in a crumpled heap. In each example, it is less about the original functional purpose of the clothing than about the action of the artist firing them into the sky and an audience watching the random movement created by their trajectory.

By far the most extreme of the three representations of clothing, the Stanford Prison Experiment shows two groups of student volunteers participating in the simulation of prison life. One group of students were given uniforms and took on the role of prison guards. The second group of students, systematically searched and stripped off their clothes, complied with the role of prisoners. Each prisoner was given a prison uniform with their respective ID number printed on the front and back to make them feel anonymous, and an ankle chain. The consequence of which was the rapid erosion of personal individuality and a passive compliance with institutional rules.

The representation of clothes and gender in Cindy Sherman’s Doll Clothes, the abstract representation of clothes in Roman Signer’s performance work and the role of clothes in defining behaviour in the Stanford Prison Experiment offer three very distinct notions of identity and the use to which clothes are given within the artistic representation of these notions of identity.



Doll Clothes (1975) Cindy Sherman. At: (Accessed on: 10 March 2017) Revised: (Accessed on: 7 November 2023)

Installations by Roman Signer (s.d.) At: (Accessed on: 10 March 2017)

Stanford Prison Experiment, (Accessed on: 10 March 2017)