Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills”




Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” by Dahlia Schweitzer

May 7th, 2014 reset - +

The following essay is an excerpt from Dahlia Schweitzer’s book Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer: Another Kind of Monster (Intellect Ltd), which will be published on May 15, 2014.

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BORN IN NEW JERSEY in 1954, Cindy Sherman spent her childhood on Long Island, immersed in the television and culture of the era. The 1950s combined worries of nuclear war with dreams of a better life, conformity with capitalism, all amidst a growing blitzkrieg of images selling everything from washing machines to cigarettes, bras to Cadillacs. What better time to be watching (and absorbing) television? What better time to be introduced to the constant consuming at the heart of American life? This climate of her early years not only influenced Sherman’s first major series, “Untitled Film Stills,” but also all of Sherman’s later photographs and her 1997 horror film, Office Killer. Key aspects of what it means to be a woman — established and explored in the cultural vernacular of the 1950s — remain evident in her work today.

“Untitled Film Stills” examines 1950s female iconography from the viewpoint of the 1970s. Containing 69 black-and-white images, sometimes crudely developed and a modest 8.5x11 inches in size, with no titles or explicit citations, the “Untitled Film Stills” became Sherman’s most well-known body of work. Reverberating with references to consumer culture and film noir, the photographs plumbed the depths of the 1950s cultural imagination through images of the girl next door and the girl in trouble; images we recognized because they told stories we knew — they were roles and faces we had seen before. Despite the sense of familiarity, there was no specific reference point; Sherman was not simply recreating and re-presenting an original. Her appropriation of cultural imagery and stereotype was broader than that. She was documenting the many facets of the American woman.

There is no single character in the stills, or underlying narrative to unify them. Instead, there is a collection of personas, each created as a function of framing, lighting, distance, and camera angle, as if to reference the dizzying array of women filling the airwaves and magazines of the 1950s. You could be everyone while still being absolutely no one. The implicit message of the photographs is that images of femininity are exactly that — little more than images. Femininity only requires a little maquillage, the right dress, and a perfect pout, as countless drag queens have demonstrated in the decades since. As Simone de Beauvoir famously declared, “One is not born a woman but becomes one,” and Sherman showed us all the different women we could become. It is not merely that the images represent the culturally prescribed limits of feminine identity but that they also depict images of possibility. After all, Sherman becomes — however fleetingly — all these women.

Sherman emphasizes the role-play inherent in both femininity and identity. It is no coincidence that women refer to the process of getting ready as “putting on their face.” Lipstick and mascara are a women’s war paint. Makeup does not just define a woman as a woman: it defines what kind of woman she is. Is she a red lipstick kind of girl? Or a sparkly lip gloss type? Is she the kind of woman who wears a lot of makeup, or the kind of woman who favors a bare face? It is not as simple as saying that a woman wears makeup to look good: a woman wears makeup to tell the world who she is.

Especially significant in terms of Sherman’s work is not just the art of the masquerade, but the artificiality of its construction; the fact that it is nothing more than painting on a surface, a pretty shell. The glamorously perfect façades of the women who fill films, advertising, and cocktail parties conceal the actual body underneath: a raw, wet, and bloody expanse that would creep out in Sherman’s later work, eventually evolving into the gaping and damaged bodies of Office Killer. The movie — representing Sherman’s only foray into filmmaking — is set in a 1990s America in which the traditional boundaries between interiority and exteriority, and by extension the public and private, have been all but eradicated. Sherman presents a material body that, even if it must be maintained with Windex and Scotch tape to remain so, locates the irreducibility of the two realms. This tension between inner and outer, between pretty surface and the real underneath, between painted face and raw insides, only grew louder and messier with Sherman’s later work.

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In 1980, Sherman’s aesthetic underwent two significant changes. She began shooting in color, and she began using projected images of locations behind her, rather than shooting in actual physical locations. The effect of the projections not only created a shallower depth of field, thus flattening the image, but it also began Sherman’s move toward even more isolation and alienation — another trend which would surface later in Office Killer. Not only were her women alone, but they were now no longer allowed outside, much like the characters of the film. Sherman’s locations would become almost exclusively internal.

A year later, another significant change occurred — Sherman’s images went horizontal, similar in shape to a movie screen. Commissioned by ArtForum and called the “Centerfolds,” these images were even more claustrophobic, shot exclusively indoors, with no hint of an outside world. Sherman’s facial expressions throughout the series were also more intense and emotional than in her earlier work. These were not conventional centerfolds.

Centerfolds want to connect with us. A typical Playboy model asks us to come closer, to lick her, to taste her flesh, to bite her lips. Sherman’s centerfolds are alone, and none of them beckon you to come closer. This is consistent with Sherman’s other images, even those that have a coquettish appeal. Sherman never suggests that you touch her. In the photographs in which her character is more conventionally attractive, as in Untitled Film Still #3, the essence of the pose is so mannequin-like that the detached artificiality enhances the separation between viewer and model. These are not blonde bimbettes. In fact, in Sherman’s own notes for the series, she lists various lying-down positions: “sleeping, fallen or thrown, unable to walk, lounging.” Nowhere is there a reference to sex. Fallen or thrown? One would be hard-pressed to imagine a Pamela Anderson centerfold in which she is fallen or thrown. In none of Sherman’s centerfolds is the woman done up, either. The hair is often sweaty and mussed, the faces glistening and shiny. But it is the kind of shiny that would never make it into the pages of Playboy. This is not the shine of an orgasmic mist; this is the shine of sweat, fear, and humidity. If it is erotic, it is not the eroticism of airbrushing; this is the shine of women without a compact, stylist, or makeup artist.

What Sherman’s and Playboy’s centerfolds have in common, however, is the same emphasis on construction and arrangement, however disparate their execution and intention. The Playboy model’s persona is built on her carefully modeled image, just like Sherman’s women. Even though Sherman’s work is constructed around the notion of the unavailable, it too is built on the notion of the performance as communicated via arrangement. It is the vernacular of body parts, of body language. Who you are is how you pose. How you pose is who you are.

Sherman’s next work was a set of fashion images commissioned by fashion designer Dianne Benson for Interview magazine, and a set commissioned by French fashion house Dorothée Bis for French Vogue. Like “Centerfolds,” these images were also atypical for their intended use. Described by Elizabeth Manchester as “silly, angry, dejected, exhausted, abused, scarred, grimy and psychologically disturbed,” they seem to indict the constraints and expectations placed on women by the fashion world. Sherman herself says about the experience:

From the beginning there was something that didn't work with me, like there was friction. I picked out some clothes I wanted to use. I was sent completely different clothes that I found boring to use. I really started to make fun, not of the clothes, but much more of the fashion. I was starting to put scar tissue on my face to become really ugly.[i]

Sherman parodies the kind of image normally found in fashion magazines, subverting restrictions commonly imposed on women in terms of their appearance and behavior, while also suggesting that the perfect body which appeared in her earlier work — the perfect body found on the pages of every fashion magazine — is only half of the equation. The second half is the other extreme: the grotesque, the disgusting, the imperfect, and the internal. It is this half which caught Sherman’s attention. The faces we normally see on the cover of Vogue, the models in their editorial spreads, Photoshopped and styled to perfection, are nothing more than a shell concealing what lies beneath. For her, this surface was now disintegrating. She wanted to move beyond and inside it.

It is not simply that her fashion photographs are shot with overly bright, unflattering light, or that the poses are awkward and sometimes angry. What makes them stand out is the model herself. Sherman’s role, the characters she was playing, was evolving, or, more accurately, de-volving. Sherman’s notes to herself for the series express the opposite of what we would expect to find in a fashion spread, such as “throwing-up, drooling, snot running down nose, bag-lady like; end of bad night; fat person; shooting up, snorting coke; bleeding, dying, etc.; but clothes perfect looking.” Sherman’s fascination had moved to the tension between extremes, between the messy and the neat, between the impeccable outside and the bloody inside, to the struggle to conceal our humanness with fashion and cosmetics.         

Sherman’s characters, both in her photographs and in Office Killer, are enigmatic women of curious strength and belligerence. Her women may be alone, their space confined by the boundaries of the frame, but they are also in control of that space. Men are conspicuously and consistently absent both in her photographs and in Office Killer. Even Sherman’s “Fashion” series photographs are antagonistic, her women refusing to mimic conventions of femininity and expected glamour — the kind of attractive complicity typically associated with fashion images.

With the “Disasters” series Sherman abandoned the fashion figure completely in favor of, in the words of Laura Mulvey, “the disgust of sexual detritus, decaying food, vomit, slime, menstrual blood, hair. These traces represent the end of the road, the secret stuff of bodily fluids that the cosmetic is designed to conceal.”[ii] The body had deteriorated, the façade had been destroyed, and the internal made external. Sherman had finally exposed the messy reality of not only what it means to be a woman, but also what it means to be human. Femininity might be a role-play, but now the show was over. Sherman had removed the mask, chipped away at the armor, and taken a hard look at the wounds, guts, and gore that make us real. Now she was showing it all to us. Sherman herself explains:

The world is so drawn toward beauty that I became interested in things that are normally considered grotesque or ugly, seeing them as more fascinating and beautiful. [...] It seems boring to me to pursue the typical idea of beauty, because that is the easiest or the most obvious way to see the world.[iii]

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Throughout the last 40 years of Sherman’s work, isolation is repeatedly coupled with aggression, a refusal to age gracefully, to play by anyone’s rules of how women (or people) should behave. There is strength in the steely solitude of Sherman’s solitary figures. They are alone because they choose to be, because their bodies are prophylactics from a world of disease, contagion, and weakness. Even in couture fashion, Sherman’s women dare to look away, to leave their hair uncombed, to apply their makeup badly (if they apply it at all). There is a duality in her images, much like there is a duality to her subjects, two ways of looking and being looked at. Is Mistress in Untitled #122 clenching her fists because she is a victim of female hysteria? Or is she clenching her fists because she is preparing to kill? Are her centerfolds ready for bed (an assumption inherent in Sherman’s titling of the series), or are they resolutely alone and unavailable? Is the housewife of Untitled Film Still #3 frilly or domestic? Each perspective is equally important, and Sherman is in the middle, creating and defying definitions, just as a woman in the 21st century must. Her work is not simply about stereotypes but about aesthetic explorations of image, woman, genre, bodies, and space, complicating the code with which we live our lives.

This, in so many words, is the road to Office Killer: a journey that began with the neat black-and-white 8x10s of the “Untitled Film Stills” and grew graphic as the images got larger and larger, until they filled an actual movie screen. The story of a lowly and modest copywriter who wreaks havoc on her workplace at Constant Consumer magazine, killing off those who upset her (or the status quo), Office Killer is truly the tale of underdog makes good. However, on a much more complex level, Office Killer also reflects the major cultural and social shifts which were taking place in America during the late 1990s, combining our fears of both technology and contagion. Even though there are other characters in the film (unlike in Sherman’s photographs), it remains a small group; a group strangely disassociated both from the world at large and itself. Dorine, as the Sherman stand-in, seems perpetually alone. The characters cannot connect with each other on any real level; bodies seep and drip but never merge. Dorine can place Mr. Michaels’s dead leg here, Virginia’s arm there, but Dorine’s body is still hers, their bodies are still theirs. We are each alone, together. Even when Mr. Michaels’s organs start spilling out, he remains intact, his organs still connected, his body still clearly his.

There is no intermingling, no physical fusion in the film, and when touching does happen — as in the case of Mr. Michaels, or the Mail Boy, or Dorine’s father — it always has a bad result. Touching in Sherman’s photographs is to be avoided; touching in Office Killer leads to disaster. Post-AIDS, that kind of connection is verboten: solitude is equated with self-preservation. Isolation also leads to safety in terms of technology since “the only sure way to curb the threat of computer viruses […] is not to share programs and data.”[iv] Office Killer is a literalization of the body’s inability to be touched by others, of the body as a prophylactic, protecting internal organs from germs and disease, and of the benefits of keeping your hands to yourself.

Sherman not only moved from the outside in, but from the abstract and conceptual to the real and tangible; from the metaphoric equivalencies of femalehood to a literal depiction of the body’s collapse; from frozen moments in time to 82 minutes of narrative, character, and metamorphosis. The decaying corpses in Office Killer are bodies literally turning inside out, the internal exposed without the pretense of perfection; an uncomfortable confrontation with everything we hope to conceal and avoid. Part of the reason horror is so disturbing is because it exposes our tenuous hold on all that is pretty and perfect. Death, after all, is always just around the corner, a constant reminder of the fragile grip we have over life and our own bodies. It is not only that the bodies got bigger as Sherman’s work progressed, but that we also get the full story in Office Killer, not just a captured still. We get the sound and the movement, the before, during, and after — and we get to watch the decay. We see the maintenance, arrangement, and presentation of these bodies.

After all, Sherman’s photographs are an encyclopedia of body language, identities performed with carefully arranged figures. The body is a collection of limbs used to convey roles, personalities, and situations. Each gesture, each object, is loaded with meaning. Her photographs are never casual snapshots or self-portraits. Rather, they are explorations of arrangement and archetype. She questions stereotype and learned behavior through her compositions and subjects, and through the diorama-like environments she creates for each scenario. She exposes the ruptures under the surface by taking everyday life and shifting it off-kilter, examining society’s expectations for appearance and behavior. Her photographs work for the attention they bring to that which does not fit, to the exact point of the tear.

While Sherman does not physically appear in Office Killer, she has said that Dorine is “a stand-in” for herself, and it is impossible not to recognize the parallels between the character of Dorine and Sherman herself. Not only does Dorine bear a visual resemblance to a Sherman character, but in the final shot of Dorine in the car’s rearview mirror — hair blonde, sunglasses chic and retro — she could be Sherman herself, yet another devotee of the power of makeup to transform, a societally sanctioned form of postmodern role-play.

Dorine, like Sherman, is a puppeteer, an arranger of her own dioramas, and this tendency only gets stronger as the movie progresses. By presenting the body as a doll, removing any sense of personal self, Sherman eradicates all sense of intimacy while maintaining total control over her own body. Sherman sees herself from the outside in, watching what happens when she picks herself apart and puts herself back together again. The isolation created by this loss of intimacy, by this clinical sense of arrangement, is heightened by the fact that, in her photographs, Sherman is always alone. The rest of the world is merely implied, if not conspicuously absent. In similar work by other photographers there is always at least the implied duality of the photographer and the subject; but in Sherman’s case she is both the photographer and subject. To accentuate the solitude and disconnect in her images themselves, she often looks outward, beyond the camera, outside of the frame. She cannot even connect with us, her viewer. We stare at her, but she is forever out of reach.


[i] Cindy Sherman quoted in Sandy Nairne, The State of the Art: Ideas and Images in the 1980s (London: Chatto & Windus, 1967), 136.

[ii] Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiousity (London: British Film Institute, 1996), 71.

[iii] Noriko Fuku, “A Woman of Parts,” Art in America 85 (June 1997): 74.

[iv] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 167.

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Dahlia Schweitzer is a writer, teacher, and former cabaret star who has toured widely in Europe and the United States.

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