A fair haired woman stands on the side of a road, small suitcase nearby, hands clasped behind her back, waiting. Dusk appears to be falling, or maybe dawn is breaking—the time of day is ambiguous. The scene is shrouded in mystery—who is this woman? Where is she going? Where is she coming from? The question of who or what she is running from follows her as the viewer’s gaze trails the woman into the distance. The wide camera angle captures the solitary figure in a vast western landscape. The fill-flash further heightens the aloneness of the figure dwarfed by her natural surroundings. As with each of the other photographs included in Untitled Film Stills series the viewer plays a voyeuristic role glimpsing the protagonist at an unguarded moment. Although Sherman stands alone in the frame, we are there as her character waits to hitch a ride to an unknown fate. Perhaps the most successful image from the series, Untitled Film Still #48 stands apart in that Sherman’s back is turned to the camera. This compositional choice elevates the level of mystery. The figure’s face is completely blocked from view, concealing any emotions opening the scene to a myriad of interpretations.
Conceived by Cindy Sherman between 1978 and 1980, shortly after graduation from Buffalo State College, the Untitled Film Stills were initially inspired by publicity film stills—photographs taken on movie sets during production and subsequently produced for publicity and promotion. Sherman’s aim was to create something that wasn’t considered high art, but rather gave the impression of a souvenir to be bought for a quarter at the corner store. The first few scenes were meticulously staged and shot in her apartment, but it wasn’t long before she took to the streets of New York for further inspiration. Together with her then boyfriend Robert Longo, she would cruise the streets with her costumes, wigs and make-up selecting locales where she could stage the next scenario. With consummate finesse and utmost intelligence, Sherman employs cinematic compositional tools–lighting, cropping, framing, camera angle—as well as bodily conventions—clothing, gestures, and poses. The use of this vocabulary conjures a feeling of suspense as we perpetually find ourselves at some single point along the continuum of a narrative that never has a clear beginning or end. “Some of the women in the outdoor shots could be alone, or being watched or followed—the shots I would choose were always the ones in-between the action. These women are on their way to wherever the action is (or to their doom)… or have just come from a confrontation (or tryst)” (C. Sherman, “The Making of Untitled,” in The Complete Untitled Film Stills, New York, 2004, p. 9).
Although Sherman was not referring to specific characters in specific films, there is an undeniable common thread which links the images in this series. Critic Arthur Danto has gone so far as to identify this pervasive theme as “The Girl in Trouble.” He states, “The stills are dense with suspense and danger and they all look as if they were directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The invariant subject is The Girl in Trouble, even if The Girl herself does not always know it. The girl is always alone, waiting, worried, watchful, but she is wary of, waiting for, worries about, and her very posture and expression phenomenologically imply The Other: the Stalker, the Saver, the Evil and Good who struggle for her possession. …The Girl is an allegory for something deeper and darker, in the mythic unconscious of everyone regardless of sex. For The Girl is the contemporary realization of the Fair Princess in the Far Tower, the red-clad child in the wolf-haunted woods, the witch-sought Innocent lost in trackless forest, Dorothy and Snow-White and The Littlest Rebel in a universe of scary things. Each of the stills is about The Girl in Trouble, but in the aggregate they touch the myth we each carry out of childhood, of danger, love, and security that defines the human condition” (A. Danto, quoted in Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Stills, New York, 1990, pp. 13-14).
Photographed in 1979 during one of Sherman’s family vacations to Arizona, Untitled #48 – which Sherman herself has dubbed “The Hitchhiker” – and its West Coast counterparts are often characterized as slightly softer and with a more muted contrast than those shot in Manhattan. For the 1979 stills, the landscape would become an essential part of the composition. Inspired by the this, Sherman recalled “Out there I wanted to be further away from the camera; I didn’t want to compete with the landscape I liked being smaller in the picture and having the scenery take over” (C. Sherman, Cindy Sherman The Complete Untitled Film Stills, New York, 2003, p. 14).
Sherman admits that it wasn’t her intent to produce such a drama focused body of work, rather the theme emerged naturally. She states, “I’m not sure if I was yet aware of the fact that in most early films, women who don’t follow the accepted order of marriage and family, who are strong, rebellious characters, are either killed off in the script or see the light and become tamed, joining a nunnery or something. Usually they die. I think I must have been unconsciously drawn to those types of characters” (C. Sherman, ‘The making of Untitled’, in The Complete Untitled Film Stills, New York 2003, p. 9).
Held in major private and museum collections internationally, Cindy Sherman’s photographs have intrigued, disturbed, affirmed and questioned; underscoring the artifices and performance of everyday life. Untitled Film Still #48 represents the artist at the beginning of her enormously influential and celebrated career undertaking an exploration of contemporary female identity in series after series of eloquent photographic masterpieces.