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Widely regarded as one of the most influential and original bodies of work to emerge from the contemporary art scene, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills transcend the boundaries of both conceptual art and photography—providing an entirely new avenue of investigations for artists who have since tried to emulate her. So influential have her Untitled Film Stills been that in 1995 the Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased the entire series from the artist in order to preserve the work in its entirety. Assembled by the esteemed Toronto collector and curator, Ydessa Hendeles, this dynamic selection of twenty-one of Cindy Sherman’s most celebrated Untitled Film Stills demonstrates the enigmatic collecting style of their original owner. Launching her eponymous foundation in 1988, over the past twenty years Hendeles has amassed a world-renowned collection of some of the finest examples of contemporary art by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Maurizio Cattelan, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, and Jeff Wall. Indeed, Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills have become an example of those rare moments when art has become not only a critical comment on modern society, but also a powerful change for the better.
With consummate finesse and extreme intellect, this extraordinary and rare grouping of 21 of Sherman’s most alluring and enigmatic film stills mines stereotypes in a compellingly persuasive narrative of visual code, drawing from a trove of filmic practices—lighting, cropping, framing, and camera angle—as well as bodily conventions—clothing, gestures and poses. Each of the 70 film stills in the artist’s captures Sherman alone, peering at a character or vision that stands just beyond our view—although often the camera is placed at a vantage point that suggests that we, the viewer, are positioned as a voyeur in the shadows. While Sherman’s work has encouraged much debate about the presence of the “male gaze,” the artist herself has admitted that such a notion was not consciously present when she conceived the series. And yet her characters consistently seem to be meandering on a path that might lead to somewhere outside the roles prescribed by society, lending a resistant voice to her work.
Relocating from Buffalo to New York City shortly after her graduation from Buffalo State College, Sherman—at the young age of twenty-three —began her sensational investigations. Morphing into the role of an imaginary blonde actress—portrayed by the artist herself—the first six Untitled Film Stills were meticulously staged in Sherman’s own apartment. Originally exhibited at Hallwalls in Buffalo in slightly different orientations that exist today, these initial explorations, epitomized by Untitled Film Still #2 and #6, purport fan-magazine-like glimpses into the life of an imaginary blonde bombshell by capturing the actress in seemingly unguarded moments at home. Anticipating her later Centerfolds of 1981, these situations highlight Sherman‘s early interest in drawing attention to the issues surrounding the representation of women—particularly in photography and film.
Mimicking the publicity still format, the 8 x 10 glossy photographs initially recall disposable prints rather than precious works of art. In fact, each of the Untitled Film Stills were deliberately priced at fifty dollars when they were first exhibited so as to evoke their original referent. Rarely printed today, film stills, in the traditional sense, were photographs taken on movie sets during production and subsequently produced for publicity and promotion. Never treated as artworks, the anonymously authored photographs were often passed out freely to fans or packaged in press kits and distributed to major media outlets for mass production in newspapers and magazines. “I wanted them to seem cheap and trashy,” Sherman has recalled of her intent to replicate these publicity photos. “Something you’d find in a novelty store and buy for a quarter. I didn’t want them to look like art” (C. Sherman, quoted in E. Respini, Cindy Sherman, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012, p. 21-22). Already deeply invested in her art, the dual status of the Untitled Film Stills, as serious works of art assuming the guise of ephemeral prints, contributed to the layered complexity of the series.
However, it is important to note that while within her own film stills Sherman takes on the role of the actress, she does not, in fact, adopt a performative approach in the creation of her works. “Once I’m set up, the camera starts clicking, then I just start to move and watch how I move in the mirror,” she has explained of her technique. “It’s not like I’m method acting or anything. I don’t feel that I am that person. I may be thinking about a certain story or situation, but I don’t become her. There’s distance. The image in the mirror becomes her—the image the camera gets on film. And the one thing I’ve always known is that the camera lies” (C. Sherman, quoted in Ibid., p. 23).
Rather, from the very outset of her project, Sherman aimed to construct signs of the unseen watcher or intruder. As Laura Mulvey described, “The camera looks; it ‘captures’ the female character in a parody of different voyeurisms. It intrudes into moments in which she is unguarded, sometimes undressed, absorbed into her own world in the privacy of her own environment. Or it witnesses a moment in which her guard drops as she is suddenly startled by a presence, unseen and off-screen, watching her” (L. Mulvey, quoted in R. Krauss, “Cindy Sherman: Untitled,” in J. Burton (ed.), October Files: Cindy Sherman, vol. 6, Cambridge, 2006, p. 109). In Untitled Film Still #2 Sherman occupies the most private of household spaces in an attempt to highlight the voyeuristic qualities of her photographs. A young girl draped in a towel stands before her bathroom mirror, touching her shoulder and following her own gesture in the reflected image, a doorjamb to the left of the frame places the “viewer” outside of this seemingly guarded and private space. Indeed, this particular setting recurs throughout the series, such as Untitled Film Still #39 and #81, each of which implements varying photographic styles and mechanisms to evoke an array of moods and energies within the scene.
The following year, Sherman set out on the streets of Manhattan and at various locations throughout Long Island. “The second year I lived in the city, I felt bored with shooting in my apartment,” she explained, “so I made these lists of outdoor scenes to look for. I’d throw together a couple of outfits and wigs in a suitcase, and my boyfriend at the time, Robert Longo, drove me around the city in his van and I’d say, ‘Oh, let’s stop here,’ and I’d change in the van and then hand him the camera and hop out and get into position and kind of walk around and say, ‘Okay, now shoot me from here, try this angle.’ I might start with a short blond wig and minimal makeup, and the next one I would change it to a black wig with more-severe makeup” (C. Sherman, in interview with M. Stevens, “How I Made It: Cindy Sherman on her Untitled Film Stills,” New York Magazine, April 7, 2008, accessed at http://nymag.com/anniversary/40th/culture/45773). It was during this year that the idea of “The Girl” within her film stills fully developed.
Undoubtedly, Sherman’s visual character was fundamentally influenced by European cinema. “I was mostly going for the look of European as opposed to Hollywood types,” she later attested. “I liked the Hitchcock look, Antonioni, Neorealist stuff. What I didn’t want were pictures showing strong emotion. It was European film stills that I’d find women who were more neutral. If the emotional quotient was too high—the photograph would seem campy” (C. Sherman, Cindy Sherman, The Complete Untitled Film Stills, New York, 2003, p. 8). As a result, as quickly as Sherman shuts the viewer out to a specific reading of a particular image, she opens the scene to a myriad of interpretations. Her promenade in the streets and quays of New York do not refer to specific movies, but rather, evoke the archetypal journey of a brazen young secretary out of the office or a nubile Italian “Femme Fatale” ready to confront the male gaze and play their own seductive game. Both uncannily familiar yet impossible to identify, the Untitled Film Stills do not exist in any “original” form—not in an actual film, nor in a publicity shot or ad—but rather they are caught in an unusual limbo: the peculiar condition of being a copy without an original.
And while many of the film stills evoke specific actresses or scenes from movies, such as Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot or Kim Novak, others impart a much more ambiguous sense of mystery, heightened merely by their photographic rendering. Photographed during one of Sherman’s family vacations to Arizona, Untitled Film Still #48—which Sherman herself has dubbed “The Hitchhiker”—and its West Coast counterparts are often characterized as slightly softer with a more muted contrast than her Film Stills shot in Manhattan. As a result, the 1979 images recall the photographic pictorialism of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secessionists. Indeed, in such frames as Untitled Film Still #38, the protagonist seems to emerge directly from one of Edward Steichen’s haunting landscapes. Infusing the photograph with a diffused, yet eerie glow, these images heighten the menacing idea of what the critic, Arthur Danto, christened “The Girl in Trouble.”
All of these women are seductresses, as is Sherman herself. In fact, Danto has gone so far as to explain the artist’s presumed roles as “The Girl” stating, “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, worried 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, p. 13 -14).
Held in major international collections, Sherman’s photographs have amused and disturbed, affirmed and questioned with both a tenacity and fierceness that underscores the artifice and performance—the fiction—of the lived life. The Untitled Film Stills represents the artist at the beginning of her enormously influential and celebrated career, a knowing twenty-something who will undertake provocative and sustained explorations of contemporary female identity in series after series of eloquent photographic masterpieces—works that stand as ostensible cultural parodies, but which function, in fact, as chilling and trenchant acts of social critique.