Cindy Sherman is a well known American photographer and film director. The image I am analysing comes from her Untitled Film Stills series. I will be analysing #21. The first inspiration for the series of stills came amid Sherman’s first year living in New York as a recent college graduate. Artist friend David Salle had an occupation doing design at a soft core porno magazine, and the undesirable stick up photographs motivated Sherman to investigate the stories that are projected onto photographs of women in the media. Sherman created this collection of photographs throughout 1977-80, consisting of 69 black-and-white photographs developed over the course of three years in which the artist herself posed conveying various generic female film characters. The decision to leave the photographs untitled and to instead assign them numbers was a conscious one, the intention being to preserve their ambiguity. However, regardless of where they were taken, the quality of the photographs or the number assigned to them, each one of Sherman’s stills is a potent work of art, both aesthetically as well as conceptually.
It is dependably Sherman herself who is in front of the camera. However these photographs are never self-portraits. The first six were an experiment, seeing into the life or roles of an imaginary blonde actress, played by Sherman herself. These black and white photographs were purposely grainy because Sherman wanted them to look like cheap publicity shots.
Sherman utilises photography as an instrument to deceive, and avoids her own identity by taking on various characters. With vintage attire, wigs and make-up, she makes a whole scope of identities. Sherman takes on numerous parts, additionally behind the camera. She is the photographer, director, hair and makeup stylist and set designer. In conducting herself to working with just her own body, she is capable to investigate the unlimited potential outcomes of this apparently limited subject. Some of her characters include, ingénue, working girl, vamp, the damsel in distress, school girl and lonely housewife. Each individual photograph creates a distinguished scene. She stages her photographs to bear a resemblance to scenes from the 1950s and 60s Hollywood, B movies and film noir. By photographing herself in these parts, Sherman is inserting herself into a dialogue about stereotypical portrayals of women. A woman photographing a woman so to speak, soon gained attention from the then rising feminist movement. A theorist Laura Mulvey, in one of her essays, contextualised Sherman’s work within the prevalent feminist modes of thought at the time. But the association between Sherman’s work and feminism has always been complicated. There is not a sole character within the stills, or a fundamental story to bring them together. Rather, there is a gathering of personas, each made as a component of framing, lighting, separation, and camera angle.
For Sherman, ambiguity was essential. She did not seek to reproduce particular or promptly unmistakable scenes, and rather kept the settings, body language, and facial expressions of her characters uncertain and open to interpretation.
I am trying to force the viewer into coming up with their own interpretation by the fact that I leave everything untitled. Ideally, I want people to question whatever preconceived notions they may have about a particular ‘scenario,’ about a character. (Robinson, 2011. Paragraph 10)
Sherman presented photography as postmodern performance art. Sherman utilises photography as an aesthetic tool to beguile and fascinate. By controlling the audience and recasting her own identity, Sherman paved a new way for photography in fine art. Furthermore, she demonstrated that even photography enables individuals to be something they’re definitely not.
Sherman explores different avenues regarding the idea of catching fiction inside fiction, as she plays these characters; an extremely post modernist ideology as it plays on the likelihood of irony, and ideas of pop culture, especially prevalent film culture. There are numerous characteristics of that movement that depict her work perfectly, none more so than her capacity to challenge reality, to investigate the veracity of the photograph and her extensive use of signs whose significance is understood by referencing more extensive social and cultural sources, and in her circumstance the silver screen of the 60s.
Gerry Badger states that the audience is not being requested to perceive particular scenes, movies or actresses but instead to decipher her work utilising a common knowledge of movies.
Since the photograph is completely constructed instead of being the result of possibility, the viewer will undoubtedly give careful consideration to what it incorporates and what it doesn’t, and most importantly to the characters vague expression.
It can also be considered a biographical analysis since it reflects whether the artist’s personal experiences and opinions may have influenced the making or significance of the artwork in some way.
For Untitled Film Still #21 Sherman plays the role of the working girl in the big city. The photograph was taken in 1978 and was generally stereotyped and found within the 1960s and even in films today, of the youthful female actress very nearly finding her “place in the world.” Sherman is both the director and the actress in this photo. She frames the scene, directs the action, and chooses how and when to trigger the camera.
This scene is infused with enigma. It is simplistic and nearly feels as though it is frozen in time. The monochromatic colour palette of the image adds drama to the scene. The black and white reminds the viewer of the past and old recollections. The black and white shades are additionally thought to be classic and expressively emotional. They eliminate the distraction of power of colour and rather makes the viewer focus on the whole composition.
The vertical suggested lines of the city buildings attract the viewers attention regarding the woman. The vertical lines also represent stability and can enable the viewer to reason that the scene is typical and not disorderly. The young woman is alone in the image. We are lead to focus on the minor details to reveal more possibilities for the narrative, for example she isn’t looking at the viewer yet rather off into the distance as though curious or alarmed. Therefore, making the vanishing point some place off the photograph. Another interpretation of this photograph however, forces the viewer to wonder about the thoughts this woman may be having at this very moment. In addition, a female viewing this photograph may have a different interpretation and relate to it more to that of a male.
Using the rule of thirds, to one side of the image, the primary focal point in the shot is of photographer Sherman or her character that she is portraying. It is a mid-shot of herself taken from below, framing her head to her shoulders which can be seen as empowering and depicts strength and superiority. The background is marginally obscured yet it is recognisable as office buildings in a city area, most likely New York. Although some viewers may not know that this background is constructed and false. Sherman is wearing a formal weaved coat, a white shirt, unbuttoned at the top and a small hat that uncovers her trimmed blonde hair. She additionally has a full face of make up. We know the time period only from her dress, otherwise the viewer would not have a clue as to what is going on. Her facial expression is one of separation and slight disgust; which is emphasised by the way that her stare is not directed at the camera, which makes it less serious towards the viewer. Perhaps she is being followed or perhaps she is just simply new to the city.
Sherman uses contrast to its maximum potential to attract attention regarding certain points inside the photograph. The shadows featured on the woman’s face sharpen her features, especially around her cheekbones. Sherman utilises space to additionally express the importance of the area; the woman, since she is situated to the right, leaves a significant amount of space to the left which conveys an unequal feel to the piece.
In Untitled Film Still #21, Sherman has made an inconspicuous parody out of the female stereotypes tormenting society, past and present. By defying viewers with a familiar image of the ‘perfect’ 1950s woman, she aims to have viewers understand their influence on stereotypes.
What makes the photo intriguing is that there is no genuine story, the viewer can make his or her understanding about the story being unfolded. Permitting the viewer the freedom to make their own particular translation of the artwork. The message of the work is about feminism and it can be viewed as a feminist analysis since it considers both the roles of women at the time of the work and it reveals insight into the kinds of gender roles women supposedly had.
This photograph in Sherman’s collection is similar to that of an outdated television show or film, the woman in the image as the leading heroine, wearing a vintage 1950s outfit and looking enamoured by something outside the frame. This creates suspense as the viewer will never know what us going on across the street from the woman. This as a result makes the image less about what is happening within the photograph, yet more about what occurred before and after the moment the shutter was pressed.
No other artist other than Cindy Sherman has ever made an extended or complex career of presenting herself to the camera. Her work has been praised and embraced by both feminist political groups and apolitical mainstream art.
The Untitled Film Stills is one of the most well-known photographic series in late 20th-century American art. The series questions notions of authorship and originality, the idea of self is totally cast aside, substituted by the idea of variety, separation, and fluidity.
Sherman’s ambiguity was essential to her narrating process. This photograph and each of her Untitled Film Stills is an independent story. The ambiguity is playful and creative.
United Film Still #21 is considered one of Sherman’s best early photographs. Through this photograph and her entire Film Still series, she simply compels viewers to ask themselves ‘who am I?’ Sherman hoped to tell a moving narrative throughout this image and all of her other stills, re-creating iconic films and imagery, as a method for rethinking standard types of storytelling. Faces, expressions, props, settings, histories, and compositions suggest how we are to think about this presented image and all of Sherman’s portfolio. While these visual signs reference the mid-twentieth-century age of Western film, the popularity of the stills has managed through various decades. They keep on circulating over thirty years after their creation and fifty to sixty years past their source material.
Cindy Sherman as the heroine in Film Still #21 will keep on wearing her little beaded cap and crisp suit, in wonder of the Big City. The viewer would not be able to however figure her present or future experiences, no matter the number of viewings of the photograph. Sherman is asking us to think about the roles women play as shaped by popular media and the expectations of society whose values have been traditionally those of men in power. Whilst other photographs in the series were simply shot to evoke an ambivalent reaction from the viewer. The series continued until Sherman had “ran out of clichés”. Above all, Sherman has attempted to give an alternate meaning of femininity and sexual identity from within the limitations of a patriarchal culture. And this image represents this accurately and brilliantly. We would like to believe that these photographs are only pure fiction and artistic endeavours since they have been staged, but this world that Cindy Sherman has fabricated is accurate, and there is no running from it.
The complete Untitled Film Stills series is now part of the permanent collection of the Museum Of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. All sixty-nine photographs were acquired by them in 1995 for an estimated value of $1 million.