Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Stills

Postmodernism and Feminism 

Cindy Sherman often uses the word “ambiguous” when describing the intent of her work, so when Elizabeth Couturier describes her as the “high priestess of the conceptual self portrait” (1) we must be careful not to leap to any conclusions. In Untitled Film Stills (2), her much celebrated collection of black and white images from the late 70s and early 80s we cannot be sure to what degree she is exploring her own personality or, to use Susan Bright’s words, whether she is  “continuously questioning the construction of femininity in contemporary society” (3). The word “ambiguous” is the clue, she is doing both or neither of these things depending on our viewpoint because her ultimate aim is for the viewer to explore the narrative within and outside each image without trying to connect the individual images or to interpret the series as a contiguous and coherent narrative.

Sherman, may or may not be the high priestess of the conceptual self portrait but she is certainly the portrait laureate of postmodern photography and the darling of the feminists. Strangely, whilst her status at the top of her art cannot be argued, her relationship with postmodernism and feminism is enigmatic. Christopher Butler (4) describes postmodernist work as being less unified, less obviously masterful, more playful or anarchic and more concerned with the process of understanding than with the pleasures of an artistic finish. In Untitled Film Stills, Sherman only firmly ticks the “more playful” box and whilst she says that she “didn’t care much about the print quality” (2) she describes her clear artistic intent in the way the images are constructed and presented (i) so it isn’t even clear that the process of understanding outweighed the artistic finish. If we use Charlotte Cotton’s (6) described attributes we are left even further adrift as Sherman’s creativity and originality fit better with the modernist ideas of aesthetic development, innovation of the medium and the creation of master practitioners whose trail blazing approaches drove the development of photography. This is, of course, the weakness of the postmodernist ideal, the irony that if an artist such as Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman excels in their chosen path through postmodern photography they become a member of an elite group who are as much part of the pantheon of photographers as Ansel Adams or André Kertész.

However, it would be quite wrong and far from the truth to say that her work is not postmodern, there are many attributes of that movement that describe her work perfectly, none more so than her ability to challenge reality, to question the veracity of the image and her extensive use of signs whose significance is only understood by referencing wider social and cultural sources, in her case the cinema of the 50s and 60s. It is equally wrong to suggest that her work is not feminist in nature despite the fact that she is quite clear that it was not created in response to gender politics. There is no doubt that she was acutely aware of the role of gender in art and in the essay that introduces the 2003 edition of The Complete Untitled Stills she specifically refers to the women artists who were appearing in the mid-70s that made the world feel “less macho”. There is a key concept in feminist theory that references the “male gaze”, the accurate statement that most images of women are created by men to be viewed by men, an idea that Sherman says she was unaware of in the late 70s, but whilst her main intent was to re-present characters from a specific era of film she was conscious that she was depicting women that had been placed into recognisable and stereotypical roles which, in itself, is evidence that she was at least subconsciously exploring feminism. Much later, in 2011 and in an interview with Saner Emine (7) she highlights her ambiguous relationship with feminism by saying “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist addressed work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.”

The Photographs

Perhaps I should take my cue from Ms. Sherman and move away from “theoretical bullshit” and talk about her photographs. The Complete Untitled Film Stills operates at so many levels that it defies summary. If ever there was a challenge to produce a series of photographs that proved Barthes’ theories as expressed in the Rhetoric of the Image (8), then this would be that series; she tells us nothing of each subject, even her numbering system is ambiguous, locations are neutral or blurred, expressions are blank and mysterious; the viewer is left to interpret each of the stills using their own memory bank of films, the meaning is in the audience’s hands.

Sherman sets out, through seventy photographs, to parody female characters from an extended family of films produced in the postwar period. She is her only model and she makes no secret of the fact that many of the photographs, especially the outdoor shots, where taken by other people, including Robert Longo her then boyfriend and a postmodern photography of note, but it is clear that she was the director, set designer, props manager and script writer as well as the actor, note how each of these roles are themselves appropriated from the world of cinema. Her approach is to construct types both in terms of the characters and the films in which they night have appeared. Gerry Badger (9) points out that we are not being asked to recognise specific scenes, films or actresses but rather to decode her work using a shared knowledge of films. She has appropriated the film still as her medium and constructed a series of characters that appear so remarkably real that we easily forget that they are generic constructs, which of course, tends to prove the feminist point that she is subverting the stereotypes of women as originally presented by men. We know now that Hollywood in the 50s and 60s was not what we might call today an enlightened sub-set of society, directors like Hitchcock were consciously adopting a voyeuristic viewpoint to objectifying and exploit the female form.

The fact that Sherman, with little repetition, found seventy stereotypes is remarkable but probably not as remarkable as the fact that they are so easily recognisable. We meet the sexy secretary, the lover, the daytime lush, the perfect 50’s housewife, the femme fatale, the provocative and buxom tart, the beaten woman and I’ve only turned a few pages. This is not the Enigma code, my generation can decode the messages with ease and without conscious reference to the late films we watched as teenagers, remember The Midnight Movie ? These characterisations only scratch the surface of the code because her constructs have at least three distinct levels;

  • Firstly, inside the frame we have the character that needs our memorised image library to decode;
  • Secondly, there is always an inferred narrative, we are not asked to understand the narrative that Sherman imagined but to create one of our own;
  • Thirdly, the aesthetics that make the images fun and pleasurable to view with or without decoding.

These three layers provide a complexity that is impossible to achieve in the traditional portrait, a complexity that a portrait photographer would find hard to reproduce because there is an over-riding statement here that we are looking at fiction, we are not asked to access the real character of the subject because we are told, on the cover, that the characters are not real. We know we are dealing with a fictional narrative, we are being asked to write our own beginning and ending. This attribute is not a figment of my imagination but a stated aim of the photographer, she is injecting ambiguity, she wants us to ask why each women is where she is, what or where they have come from and where they are going, what does that look mean? The code of the cinema is our only clue but what a clue it is, we recognise the generic scene, we know that a women with a suitcase (#59) is not just walking home with a new purchase, she must be leaving home, on her way to a tryst, leaving a lover, going to join a lover but why is her hand raised? Is she dismissing her old life or someone outside of the frame?

Sherman’s characters are the sole occupants of each frame but there are often signs that they are not always alone. In #14 the mirror reflects a martini glass, a jacket and cigarette smoke, we know that someone else is in the room. In #47 the women watering the garden has turned to look past the camera and because it is a film still we know that the narrative is not as prosaic as asking someone to turn off the tap, there is an implied drama, she is being surprised by an arrival, we are left to imagine the next scene. The characters’ expressions are often neutral, a dramatic tool to inject mystery, she does not “ham-up” the part to make the story obvious so the narrative is always open. It is also noticeable that Sherman is rarely looking at the camera. she is detached from the production process and this emphasises the sense of voyeurism.

The aesthetic level cannot be ignored, these images might be ultimately be a feminist work because they generate different responses depending on gender. Sherman loved dressing up, adopting a persona and acting out a role so it is no surprise that a male viewer will find many of these photographs provocative, voyeuristic and loaded with sexuality. Both male and female viewer might identify the same stereotype but do they place the character into the same story or, equally important, do they place themselves into the story in the same role? This is part of the ambiguity, the evidence can be interpreted in many ways and the same photograph can elicit opposed emotional responses. Whether we are conditioned, as the feminists suggest, or genetically programmed we cannot escape the fact that there is an soft porn, albeit ultra soft porn, aspect to some of these pictures. Sherman herself mentions soft porn as one of her many sources.

David Campany sums up the aesthetic experience when he points out that “her photographic accomplishment is not a secondary issue” these are superb photographs with complex and masterful compositions and a sophisticated internal narrative. These complexities are multiplied by the use of cinematic techniques and the coded relationships with the history of film.

Autobiographical ?

I started this easy by quoting Elizabeth Couturier as describing Sherman as the “high priestess of the conceptual self portrait” (1) and there is some truth in this statement. Sherman is clear in saying that the photographs do not represent aspects of her own life so, in that sense, the normal aspects of autobiography are absent but at the same time the artist was exploring facets of her own character. From an early age Sherman loved dressing up and make-up and as a young women was conflicted by the trend for a natural look so Untitled Film Stills offered her the opportunity to take her theatrical instincts  into a photographic art setting and explore her own personality in a safe environment.

We learn something about Sherman through the collective of these photographs but nothing through each picture. She is not baring her soul to the audience but she allows us to know about her obsession with masquerade. It would be a neat summary to say that Untitled Film Stills explores femininity rather than one women but I don’t see it that way. It explores a particular way of presenting women at a particular time in cinematic history, a history that is a reflection of society at that time. By being so easily decoded it tells us much about our own prejudices, memories and emotional reaction to art so in the end we probably learn more about ourselves that we do about Cindy Sherman.

Notes on Text

( i ) For reference see Sherman’s essay introducing The Complete Untitled Film Stills (1) where she describes her printing processes. She is very clear about wanting to get away from the preciousness of the art object but at the same time she did not promote the image totally above the finish in the way that we can see in the work of, for example, Nan Goldin (5 and here)



(1) Couturier, Elisabeth (2011) Talk About Contemporary Photography (English language edition 2012) Paris: Flammarion

(2) Sherman, Cindy (2003) The Complete Untitled Film Stills (note that the photographs for this series were taken between 1977 and 1980 but not published as a complete work until this book in 2003) London: Thames and Hudson.

(3) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.

(4) Butler, Christopher (2002) Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Kindle Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(5) Goldin, Nan (1986) The Ballard of Sexual dependency. 2012 re-Issue edition. New York: Aperture

(6) Cotton, Charlotte. (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New edition 2009. London: Thames and Hudson.

(8) Barthes, Roland (1968) The Rhetoric of the Image. (Included within Image, music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (1977)) London: Fontana Press

(9) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(10) Campany, David (2003) Art and Photography (abridged, updated and revised in 2012. 2014 reprinted edition) London: Phaidon.


Sollins, Susan (Interviewer) (2011) Cindy Sherman: Characters. A film by Art21 (accessed at blip 30.3.15) –


(7) Saner, Emine (2011) Cindy Sherman. Top 100 Women: Art, Film, Music and Fashion (accessed at the Guardian 30.3.15) –

Stevens, Mark (2008) How I made it: Cindy Sherman on her ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (accessed at New York Magazine 30.3.15) –

This entry was posted in 1 - Autobiographical Self-Portraiture, 1 - Telling a Story, 2 - Masquerades, Books & Exhibitions, Inspirational Photographers, Research and Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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