When John Waters asked Sherman why of the entire set of Untitled Film Stills, #48 stood out as one of the most epochal, Sherman replied, “maybe what’s so 'iconic' is that you don’t even see the girl’s face. She’s got her back to the camera, so its like anybody can imagine who she is.” (the artist cited in Ibid., p. 71) Broadcasting a voyeuristic unease and profound existential malaise, Sherman’s protagonist stands with her back toward us, staring into the receding distance with enigmatic foreboding. The camera is positioned in such a way that the viewer is located away from the narrative, rather than in the frame, heightening the ominous intensity of the image. Negating our gaze while opening up a radical, thrilling potentiality, the present work situates the viewer as both voyeur and protagonist—the simultaneous subject and object of the gaze. Suspenseful, portentous, and starkly elegant, the ambiguity of Sherman’s image allows for a plasticity of interpretation: “Some of the women in the outdoor shots could be alone or being watched or followed—the shots I would choose were always the ones in-between the action. These women are on their way to wherever the action is (or to their doom)…or have just come from a confrontation (or a tryst).” (the artist cited in Ibid., p. 9)
Untitled Film Still #48 was shot while Sherman was on vacation with her parents in Arizona in 1979, a trip during which she took many of her most important stills; Sherman described the time as a series of drives through the landscape, stopping when she saw a vista that attracted her. Sherman set up her camera one evening at sunset on the pastoral highway in Arizona and had her father hold up a flash while the camera’s shutter was open for a few moments to capture this enduring image. As Sherman wrote, “Out there I wanted to be farther away from the camera, I didn’t want to compete with the landscape… I liked being smaller in the picture and having the scenery take over.” (the artist cited in David Frankel, ed., Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills, New York, 2003, p. 14)
Adopting a variety of guises in a litany of cinematic tableaux culled from the vocabulary of Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Douglas Sirk, the series of Untitled Film Stills marks the inception of Sherman’s career-long investigation into the mass media’s proliferation of gender-bound stereotypes, unraveling the constructions inherent in the artifice of image-making. Sherman embodies the multifaceted role of actress, director, wardrobe assistant, set designer, and cameraman, fashioning every aspect of her ingénue’s appearance. The body of work as a whole depicted a range of female personae in various states of solitude, distress, contemplation, empowerment, and sexual provocation. Of these stills, #48 has gained the most notoriety for its stirringly and immediately riveting image. Employing the archetypal characteristics of a film production still—the scene that appears as though it is frozen from a larger narrative, but is in fact meticulously composed for the purposes of publicity—Sherman revels in the conceptual complexity of the form. We are lured into a compelling drama and seduced into providing our own reading of the scene, yet by its very nature we concomitantly understand its inherent fiction.
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