In one of my favorite episodes of Frasier, our hero tries to photograph a famous swimsuit model asleep in his bed. Without that evidence, no one will believe he seduced her. Awakened by the camera’s shutter, she’s horrified and storms out. Before exiting, she chastises him for having to prove that he “bagged a model.”
In her photographs, Cindy Sherman is both exploitative artist and model, hunter and hunted, stalker and prey. MoMA’s Cindy Sherman retrospective is one of the art world’s highlights of the year.
Upon entering the exhibit, viewers are greeted by murals with larger than life photographs of Sherman. We encounter a group of familiar female “types,” as portrayed by the artist herself, from the DIY hipster to the society matron. Someone unfamiliar with her work might not realize these are all the same woman. The color photographs of Sherman are superimposed over a rear projected, black-and-white backdrop, a technique familiar from old movies. In the first gallery are the complete Untitled Film Stills, the focus of this essay.
Cindy Sherman was born (New Jersey, 1954) into what J. Hoberman calls The Dream Life, an era that began with the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1956, when “the famous aspects of the American Dream were now inseparable from the ordinary aspects of the nationʼs waking life.”
Sherman speaks of the students at State College Buffalo, with whom she formed the art space Hallwells, as Fifties Kids. Laura Mulvey writes:
By referring to the ʻ50s in her early work, Sherman joins many others in identifying Eisenhowerʼs America as the mythic birthplace of postmodern culture. Reference to the ʻ50s invokes the aftermath of the Korean War and the success of the Marshall Plan. American mass consumption, [Guy Debordʼs] the ʻsociety of the spectacle,ʻ and indeed the Hollywood melodrama. It was a time when . . . advertising, movies, and the actual packaging and seductiveness of commodities all marketed glamour.
Sherman would go to openings dressed in thrift shop vintage, a trend that was just beginning:
In Buffalo Iʼd bought lots of clothes from thrift stores, partly because thrift stores were what I could afford, partly because I didnʼt like anything in regular stores anyway. I was at such odds with the way things were style-wise in the mid-ʻ70s–the braless, makeup-free, natural-everything, muumuu look, which was quite contrary to ʻ60s girdles, pointy bras, false eyelashes, stilettos, etc.
Those small black-and-white photographs 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 . . . Since Shermanʼs characters in the Untitled Films 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 someoneʼs gaze . . .
In the documentary Cindy Sherman: An Interview, Sherman refers informally to Still #6 as “black bra and white panties.” In the same film, she says she was after “the cheap image” from publicity photos, “cheap” in terms of “print quality or exposure.” At the time, she was “not consciously aware of this thing called the ʻmale gaze.ʼ It was the way I was shooting, the mimicry of the style of black and white grade-Z motion pictures that produced the self-consciousness of these characters, not my knowledge of feminist theory.”
In his introductory essay to Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Stills, Arthur C. Danto writes:
At one stage in her evolution toward the stills, Sherman took on the mission of performance artist by appearing at events such as openings in the gallery in which she worked as a receptionist in one or another dissonant costume — a nurseʼs uniform, for example . . . set up perturbations across a social field in which she and others were just externally related . . . Sartre talks of such transformations, from a groupe-en-séries to what he calls a groupe-en-fusion . . . an event ephemeral but morally sublime in which the walls between selves dissolve.
“Black bra and white panties” seems to channel Janet Leigh in a motel room in Psycho ( 1960). It’s Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), however, that uses hair color as a key plot point when Kim Novak transforms from coarse brunette to luminous blonde. Sherman knows the power of platinum but goes dark when the “role” calls for Anna Magnani’s earthiness [Dark haired Asian actresses have gone the opposite route to blonde, e.g., Bridgette Lin in Wong Kar Waiʼs Chungking Express (1994) and Jeanne Chin in Shopping for Fangs (1997)].
Stills #54 and 55 show Sherman dressed in an overcoat with the whiteness of her face and platinum hair illuminated on an otherwise dark street. Her pose is equal parts pensive James Dean candid shot, Tippi Hedrin publicity still and imagined Blondie album cover.
Dreaming the Film Life
Sherman reportedly failed a photography course at Buffalo State. That may be apocryphal but suggests a greater truth that she never set out to be a “professional” photographer. A how-to guide on glamour photography from 1950 offers this:
If you can make a pretty girl look intelligent as well as pretty, by showing her reading a good book or playing an intellectual game like chess, or make her look industrious by showing her knitting or making other good use of her spare time, you are doing her more of an honor than you would be by merely recording her beauty . . . Vigorous poses, suggesting plenty of verve on the part of the model, are hard to beat for bathing suit shots, but they should be attempted only with vivacious girls who can make an energetic stance seem to fit naturally with their personalities
In Cindy Sherman, 1975-1993, Rosalind Kraus writes:
Here is a curious story: an art critic writes an account of Cindy Sherman presenting her work to an art-school audience. She shows slides of her Untitled Film Stills–the black-and-white photographs in which as both director and actress she projects a range of 1950s screen images–and next to each, he reports, she presents stills from the movie on which her images were based. What emerges through this comparison, he says, is that “virtually every detail seemed to be accounted for: right down to the buttons on the blouses, the cropping of the image, even the depth of field of the camera . . . On its face this story is amazing. Because in a Sherman Film Still there is no “original.” Not in the “actual film,” nor in a publicity shot or “ad.” not in any other published “picture.” The condition of Shermanʼs work in the Film Stills–and part of their point, we could say–is the simulacra nature of what they contain, the condition of being a copy without an original.
In a 1983 interview with Lisbet Nilson, Sherman said: “Some people have told me they remember the movie that one of my images is derived from, but in fact I had no film in mind at all.” Not a specific movie, perhaps, but by the time she created the Untitled Film Stills, she had watched, in her words, “a ton of films,” on television, during excursions to the SUNY Buffalo film department and, of course, in conventional cinemas. On her local affiliate, she would watch that week’s Million Dollar Movie, repeated nightly. She was certainly familiar with Jean Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague, Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirkʼs melodramas, B noir and Italian neo-realism. Rosalind Krause asks:
Did Sherman ever show real movie stills next to her own work? And if so, to what end? Since her own images manage to project an array of stereotypical Hollywood or New Wave heroines, along with the very atmospheres through which they are cast . . . and yet do all of this from a kind of intense, generalized memory, what would a comparison of, say, a still from a Douglas Sirk film and a Cindy Sherman Film Still mean? Could it indicate that the sense that the two images intersect–no matter how distant their actual details might be– derives from the way both Sherman and Sirk (in addition to Sirkʼs actress) are each imaginatively focused on a remembered fantasy.
For the series Carte Blance/Cindy Sherman, the artist has selected films from MoMA’s collection that have influenced her, from Harlan County, USA and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Explaining her choices, she writes:
I saw a lot of film while I was in college. I went to school in Buffalo, where there was a great experimental film and video department at University at Buffalo called Media Study. I wasn’t in that program, but I knew or met many of the filmmakers who taught there, or who visited and showed their work. . . . When I moved to New York City in the late 1970s, everyone was going to the Bleecker Street Cinema, the Thalia, or other now-defunct theaters to watch old films. I felt like we were feeding on them. There were series of Japanese films, kung-fu action pics, Russian silent films, the French New Wave . . . It was also right around this time (the mid-to-late 1970s) that horror films as we know them really started. They had titles and reputations that kept me away; I was scared without knowing a thing about them.
In her introduction to The Complete Untitled Film Stills, Sherman acknowledges her debt to Hitchcock, Antonioni, actresses Jeanne Moreau, Simone Signoret and even Doris Day. The influence of Andy Warhol, who would create “superstars” and put them into his real but micro-budget movies, is obvious. “As in so much else,” writes Arthur C. Danto, “Warhol pioneered . . . leaving it to assistants and hangers on to bring his works into being. . . Cindy Sherman is not required to trip the shutter or develop the plates, inessential to her way of being an artist.”
Untitled Film Still #13, again finds her in a French New Wave mode with a long blonde wig and headband a la Brigitte Bardot. Sherman makes the distinction that “sheʼs more of a Bardot type than a Bardot copy.”
Over time, Sherman herself became an influence. Laura Mulvey writes: “Cindy Shermanʼs impersonations predate, and in some ways prefigure, those of Madonna.” It should’t be surprising that Madonna sponsored the1997 exhibition of the Untitled Film Stills at MoMA.
In Still # 2 from 1978, Sherman wears a short- brimmed hat in front of a New York Skyline. Molly Ringwald was dressed similarly in a publicity poster for Pretty in Pink (1986). So, the character from a “fake” movie inspires a “real” one. But, becoming a trendsetter was not what Sherman had in mind. Like Madonna, she had a need to constantly change and evolve. She eventually began to work in color and her characters became increasingly grotesque which can be seen in the MoMA exhibition.
I thought I could go on indefinitely with these characters, but by 1980 fashion styles had begun to absorb a lot of the clothes I was using, nostalgia was in, so I started to think the work was looking a little too fashionable. I didnʼt think about what I was leaving behind; for the most part I really had no clue what other people would come to think of this work.
Burton, Johanna. Cindy Sherman. Cambridge, MA, London: The MIT Press, 2006.
Cruz, Amanda, Jones, Amelia, Smith, Elizabeth A. T. Cindy Sherman, Retrospective. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1997.
Danto, Arthur C., Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Stills, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1990.
Finkelstein, Nat and Dalton David. Edie Factory Girl. New York: VHI Press, 2006.
Hanson, Eugene Montgomery, Glamour Guide: How to Photograph Girls. Minneapolis: American Photographic Publishing Co., 1950.
Hoberman, J., The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties. New York: New Press, 2003.
Krauss, Rosalind, Cindy Sherman 1975-1993. New York: Rizzoli, 1993.
Rice, Shelley, Editor. Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman. New York and Miami, London: The MIT Press, 1999.
Sherman, Cindy. The Complete Untitled Film Stills. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2003.
Sjogren, Britta. Into the Vortex: Female Voice and Paradox in Film. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
An earlier draft was presented at CUNY’s 2010 Cinematic Desire Conference.