Cindy Sherman Revisited: Untitled Film Stills

Posted by: Dana Barbieri

“As a female artist, I still find it frustrating to be pigeon-holed by my gender.” D.K. Barbieri

While it may seem like flogging a dead horse, as the saying goes, Cindy Sherman’s iconic series, Untitled Film Stills, of 1977, still holds merit and meaning. Almost forty years later, her artistic discussion of the roles we play and are expected to play as women, still holds sway. Her photographs, using self as subject, are not, definitively, self-portraits. Rather, as her biography at cindysherman.com reflects, “Sherman plays a type…not an actual person, but a self-fabricated one.” In Untitled Film Stills, Sherman serves as model, photographer, and commentator.

She portrays, in an impersonal way, the archetypal female: the ingénue, the housewife, the actress, and the victim. Naomi Rosenblum writes, in her fourth edition of World History of Photography, that self-portraiture is far from Sherman’s purpose. Sherman uses “drama and ritual in conjunction with photography to make transcendent statements.” (p.569). And transcendent these statements are. How much have these female archetypal roles changed since Cindy Sherman addressed them back in 1977?

Gender roles have changed significantly since Sherman’s publication of Untitled Film Stills, and yet not to the degree of equality. As a female artist, I still find it frustrating to be pigeon-holed by my gender. Admittedly, I have made certain concessions not to be initially judged by my gender by using my initials rather than my full name, although “Dana” is a name that serves as both a male and female. I want my work to be judged by its merit, impact, and quality, and not by my gender.

Though it took me a long time to connect with Sherman’s work, I cannot help but truly appreciate it now. At first, I considered her work, in my ignorance, to be a farcical and one-off attempt at fifteen minutes of fame, not necessarily trivial but jumping on the post modernist bandwagon. Cindy Sherman has approached, through her projects during Untitled Film Stills and moving forward, the subject of our appearances, how we present to our peers, our social personae, the veracity of the photographic image, and photography itself as an artistic medium. My respect for Cindy Sherman as an artist has become profound.

Photo of Cindy Sherman, courtesy of Biography.com
Image: Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Still #21” (1978), Gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 x 9 1/2″ (19.1 x 24.1 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel
Image: Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Still #17” (1978). 2014 Cindy Sherman and Metro Pictures
Image: Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6″ (1977), Gelatin silver print, 9 7/16 x 6 1/2″ (24 x 16.5 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Eugene M. Schwart

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