M ade over the course of three years (1977-1980), the seventy images in this series depict the artist dressed in various female guises. The ingenuity and uniqueness of each Film Still is best understood when multiple examples can be seen at the same time, as with Untitled Film Still #10 and #45, exhibited together in Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries.
These black-and-white photographs slyly riff off the well-known format of 8-by-10-inch film stills and glossy publicity photographs that mid-century movie studios distributed to advertise new titles and favorite actors. The Film Stills firmly established Sherman’s artistic practice of using her own body as the central figure in the expanding corpus of portraits she continues to create.
In the summer of 1977, Sherman remembers seeing a story board of photographs related to a commercial project in the studio of her friend David Salle:
“…It was hard to figure out what was going on in any of them, they were totally ambiguous and I just loved that. This kind of imagery would solve my problem of trying to imply a story without involving other people, just suggesting them outside the frame…”
The deliberate open-endedness of each Film Still gestures toward a rough narrative outline, but never delivers a specific plot line. Sherman has admitted that she did not title the pictures since it would have ruined their ambiguity. Their ‘untitled’ status gives each viewer license to embrace any allusion they may find in the pictures, from mid-century movies to celebrity reportage.
Untitled Film Still #45 is set in a public space. “Some of the women in the outdoor shots could be alone, or being watched or followed,” Sherman has explained. “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).”
Perhaps this scene captures a starlet stalked by a paparazzo wielding a telephoto lens, or maybe she is a young actress cooling off in the pool of her Los Angeles apartment complex. The making of this Film Still was surprisingly uncomplicated. Sherman shot #45 during a family vacation in Arizona while relaxing at a hotel pool. She had given her camera to her niece to take some photographs as she posed in the water. Rather than feeling theatrical or fussy, the casualness of #45 renders it eerily believable.
Sherman crafted one of her most powerful interior scenes in Untitled Film Still #10. “Some of the photographs are meant to be a solitary woman and some are meant to allude to another person outside the frame," she has noted. Wearing a hairstyle reminiscent of a Dorothy Hamill wedge cut, the heroine might be a working girl at the end of a rough day, caught just moments after her groceries have toppled to the floor. Maybe she is a dutiful girlfriend trying to prepare a nice dinner before her guy walks in the door. Perhaps she’s a struggling actress living on scrambled eggs and Campbell’s soup. The essence of all these scenarios is the same: a young woman is caught off guard by someone standing just outside the frame. Notably, another print of #10 sold at Sotheby’s in 2018 for $225,000.
For Sherman, the making of the Film Stills was akin to the childhood activity of playing dress-up. Each of the seventy photographs embraces the spirit of make-believe. None of the Film Stills is about the artist as a specific individual, nor was she crafting a body of self-portraits. Instead, her process of sourcing costumes and props to create scenarios for her heroines was implicitly about not being Cindy Sherman. The result is a rich array of women who embody inherently recognizable female archetypes.
Just as real-world film stills traded on their ability to pique the interest of a potential ticket buyer or film goer, Sherman’s chameleon-like characters continue to intrigue successive generations because each image refrains from dictating a specific story; rather, it sets a stage that we can activate however we desire.
Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #10 and #45 are on view at Sotheby’s New York from 20 to 26 September.