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Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #3, 1977
When Cindy Sherman was asked about the role of feminism in her work for an interview with Tate Magazine, she responded, “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.” However bluntly evidenced by her remarks, Cindy Sherman’s portrayal of women in photography is the underlying leitmotiv behind her work. What makes her work so unique is the unity of ideas she presents; an adherence to making photographs vis-à-vis a feminine condition, or work that is sensitive and aware to the condition she portrays. Perhaps this is best shown in her monograph Untitled Film Stills, a series of black and white photographs taken from 1977-1980, widely acclaimed as her magnum opus.
Untitled Film Stills presents the plurality of ideas about the female identity Sherman is after. On each of the images, Sherman photographs herself as a cliché of this identity as if she were an actress in a B-movie—be it as the product of domesticity, the object of sexual desire or the romantic vagabond. As critic Arthur Danto mentions in his essay Photography and Performance: Cindy Sherman’s Stills, “none of Cindy Sherman’s images is of Cindy Sherman as [herself]. They are of The Girl, for whom Cindy Sherman posed.”
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977
Untitled Film Still #6 is a prime example of Sherman’s representation of women through objectification and sex appeal. What strikes us most about this image is The Girl’s explicit vulnerability. Her exposed torso, the pensive placement of her hand underneath her cheek and blank gaze framed in the folds of the sheets make us want to understand why she is in that bed. One could ask, “Is there a lover? Is he on the other side of the bed, or in another room? Is she thinking about him?” Sherman lets us pose an infinite number of questions about The Girl’s situation, and they are all valid because each viewer relates to her in a different way.
This notion helps the viewer better see the unity as an objective; that is to say, Cindy Sherman is not saying anything in her photographs as Cindy Sherman. These are not self-portraits. She is saying it as the idea of what Danto calls The Girl. The Girl appears in every photograph, and though she is familiar in each (because the model is Sherman), she is never expressing the same idea as The Girl. She is being-there and she is not being-there at the same time, like a performer, and all the while she is able to convey these figurative portraits of femininity.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1978
The Girl is seen all alone in the big city; the worried look on her face combined with the backdrop of towering skyscrapers gives us the distinct impression of her anxiety. The image is filled with a curiosity that allows the viewer to identify with her stress.
- - Zachary Press