Cindy Sherman (American, b. Glen Ridge, New Jersey, 1954)
Untitled Film Still #53 (Blonde: Close-Up With Lamp), 1980
Dated, signed, and numbered lower right
Black and white photograph
Image: 26 x 38 in. (66 x 96.5 cm)
Sheet: 29 1/16 x 41 1/8 in. (73.8 x 104.5 cm)
Gift of Donald Droll in honor of Chloe Hamilton Young, 1984
Cindy Sherman transforms herself into a disquieting image of 1950s B-movie femininity in this photographic performance. Engaged with issues current in the early 1980s under the rubric of postmodernism, the work investigates the role of photography in the construction of the unified self, and makes explicit the power relations provoked by the act of looking.
This large photograph belongs to Sherman's Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), a series of sixty-five grainy, black-and-white photographs reminiscent of "film noir" movie stills.1 Although Sherman is both model and photographer in these works, these images are not autobiographical. She photographs herself in various guises of stereotypical femininity, each a moment in a larger implied narrative.
Along with many artists working in the 1980s, such as Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosler, and Sherrie Levine, Sherman adopts the postmodern stance that photography is a strategy for revealing the cultural constructions we designate as truth. Counter to classic modernist notions of the photograph as formal icon or truthful document, the fictional narratives of Sherman's Untitled Film Stills and the feminine conditions they construct suggest that photographic production, like all forms of representation, is ideologically motivated.
In Untitled Film Still # 53, Sherman engages with another theme of postmodern practice and theory of the 1980s: the camera is not a neutral device but an ideological apparatus that frames and constructs a particular viewpoint. In this case, Sherman seems to have consciously manipulated the image to emphasize the controlling (implicitly male) gaze of the viewer from which the young blonde anxiously averts her own gaze. As a number of writers have pointed out, the young women in the Untitled Film Stills series reenact cinematic codes of femininity of the 1950s.2 Outfitted in a demure '50s nylon blouse and carefully done hairdo and makeup, the Oberlin figure thus reconstructs the codes of passivity, vulnerability, and anxiety. A '50s lamp and diffused lighting suggest an evening encounter in a domestic interior. The young woman has little room to maneuver in the limited space left to her between the viewer and the wall. Other Stills portray such constructs of femininity as the brutalized victim, the vamp or hooker, 1978, AMAM inv. 81.21), and the bourgeois hausfrau.
Other writers have suggested that Sherman's role-playing exposes femininity itself as a masquerade, and is thus a fiction rather than an absolute identity.3 The masquerade of femininity enacted by Sherman's women, as well as the role-playing of Sherman herself, recall another postmodern tenet: that the self is a matrix of shifting identities rather than a unified whole.4
Critical response to Sherman's Untitled Film Stills has been generally laudatory. Writers interested in postmodernism and critical theory, such as Craig Owens and Abigail Solomon-Godeau, as well as those interested in other perspectives, such as Peter Schejldahl and Rosalind Krauss, offer diverse interpretations of the series.5 The ambiguity of Sherman's work allows and encourages a relatively wide range of interpretations.
Work reproduced with permission of Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, in 1954, and grew up in suburban Huntington Beach on Long Island, the youngest of five children. She came to New York in 1977 shortly after receiving her B.A. in photography at the State University of New York at Buffalo (1976), a thriving art program at that time. She exhibited photographs of herself in 1977, and began the Untitled Film Stills in the same year. She continued to work in series and in 1980 began to work in color as well (as in Untitled #87 [Blue Shirt/Red Blanket], 1981, AMAM inv. 82.73). After several more groups of photographs of single women, she moved to images of herself dressed as historical costumed figures, and then to several series based on violent images of otherness, death, and brutality. She no longer always uses herself as a model, but photographs mannequin body parts in several grotesque series related to violent sexuality. Most recently, Sherman has photographed rotting fruit with visceral connotations.
Sherman became well known after her first one-person exhibition of Film Stills in 1981 at Metro Pictures in Soho, New York City. That same year she was featured in the Young Americans exhibition at the AMAM. In 1982, she had her first European exhibition in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum. A sign of her early success came in the form of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1983. She remains an important figure on the New York and international art scene, with works in major collections around the globe, and continues to create imaginative, often bizarre works.
Crimp, Douglas. "Cindy Sherman: Making Pictures for the Camera." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 38, no. 2 (1980-81), pp. 86-91.
Cindy Sherman. Exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1987. Essays by Peter Schejldahl and Lisa Phillips.
Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Stills. New York, 1990. Introduction by Arthur C. Danto.
"Collaboration John Baldessari, Cindy Sherman." Parkett 29 (1991), pp. 74-123.
Krauss, Rosalind. Cindy Sherman, 1975-1993. New York, 1993. With an essay by Norman Bryson.
Purchased from Metro Pictures, New York, by Donald Droll, 1984, and given by him to the museum
Cindy Sherman. Exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1982, cat. no. 33.
Krauss, Rosalind. Cindy Sherman, 1975-1993. New York, 1993, pp. 62-63.
Cindy Sherman. Exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1987, pl. 33.
Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Stills. New York, 1990, pl. 36.
The gelatin silver print is printed on a fiber-based paper with a very matte finish and a visible texture. The overall condition is good, although there is faint staining, probably from residual processing chemicals, on the recto; this is more pronounced on the verso. The photograph is not mounted and there is some vertical puckering from the top and bottom edges. A slight diagonal scuff mark appears just to the left of the lamp.
1. Each image was published in an edition of three 30 x 40 in. prints (as here) and ten 8 x 10 in. prints. For a checklist of the series and many illustrations, see Rosalind Krauss, Cindy Sherman: 1975-1993 (New York, 1993). For illustrations of almost all the images, see Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Stills (New York, 1990).
2. For example, see Douglas Crimp, "Pictures," October 8 (Spring 1979), pp. 75-88; and Craig Owens, "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism, Part 2," October 13 (Summer 1980), pp. 58-80.
3. Joan Riviere is responsible for the original concept; see her "Womanliness as a Masquerade," The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 10 (1929). On Sherman, see, for example, Craig Owens, "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism," in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley, 1992), p. 183.
4. The classic text for this theory is Roland Barthes, "Death of the Author," in Image/Music/Text (London, 1977), pp. 142-48.
5. Craig Owens, "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism," in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley, 1992), p. 183; Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "Photography after Art Photography," Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (Boston, 1984), pp. 79-80; Peter Schejldahl, "The Oracle of Images," in Cindy Sherman (exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1987), pp. 7-11; and Rosalind Krauss, Cindy Sherman, 1975-1993 (New York, 1993).