I was always glued to the television when I was a kid, and I loved movies. There was one show, The Million Dollar Movie, that played the same film over and over every night for a week, so you could really know it by heart. I remember stumbling across a bizarre futuristic film that was made up of nothing but still images except for one of the final scenes, which moved: it was Chris Marker’s La Jetée, which must have been on PBS when I was a teenager. I didn’t know it was meant to be science fiction, it was just very weird. Another time I had to go with my parents to a dinner party and wound up watching TV in the basement, eating my little dinner alone watching Hitchcock’s Rear Window while the adults partied upstairs. I loved all those vignettes Jimmy Stewart watches in the windows around him–you don’t know much about any of those characters so you try to fill in the pieces of their lives.
For years I have been fascinated by Cindy Sherman’s famous/infamous Untitled Film Stills series of photographs. I am still fascinated.
I have wondered if the pictures truly represent established stereotypes of female identity and societal norms for some serious artistic purpose, or are really the end-product of just having fun. I am inclined to think that they really are about having fun, about dressing up, about the strange joy of having one’s picture taken, and about having some control over that picture taking, and, of course, about pretending to be someone else. I am inclined to think the pictures do invite a more contemplative attitude, but are first and foremost about play. Then again, I might be wrong.
A gang of artists would converge there to watch Saturday Night Live or Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I’d be in my studio making up a character and then go out in character to join the party. I’d have put in all this energy into the makeup and I’d think, Why waste it. There’s a photo of me as Lucille Ball from that time: I had a wig that reminded me of her hairstyle.
Then again, I might be right.
Her fascination with self-transformation extended to her frequent trips to thrift stores, where she purchased vintage clothes and accessories, which suggested particular characters to her: “So it just grew and grew until I was buying and collecting more and more of these things, and suddenly the characters came together just because I had so much of the detritus from them.” Sherman began wearing these different costumes to gallery openings and events in Buffalo. For example, to attend a gallery opening, she dressed up as a pregnant woman. While there was an obvious performative element to this practice, Sherman never considered these outings “performances” in an artistic sense because she was “not maintaining a character” but simply “getting dressed up to go out.”
Amada Cruz, Movies, Monstrosities, and Masks: Twenty Years of Cindy Sherman, (2003)
I didn’t want to make “high” art, I had no interest in using paint, I wanted to find something that anyone could relate to without knowing about contemporary art. I wasn’t thinking in terms of precious prints or archival quality; I didn’t want the work to seem like a commodity.
Ultimately, as I have experienced it, Sherman’s practice participates in what I have argued to be the opening of the subject to otherness (the baring of the circuits of desire connecting self and other in a dynamic of intersubjectivity) that gives what we might call postmodernism its most remarkable and particular antimodernist thrust. In feminist and phenomenological terms, the body, which instantiates the self, is a “modality of reflexivity,” posing the subject in relation to the other in a reciprocal relationship; through gendered/sexual performances of the body, the subject is situated and situates herself through the other.
The subject, then, is never complete within itself but is always contingent on others, and the glue of this intersubjectivity is the desire binding us together (the projective gaze is one mode of intersubjectivity but functions specifically to veil this contingency by projecting lack onto the other rather than admitting its own). It is the intersubjective dimension of Sherman’s work that has largely been ignored (not surprisingly, since it exposes the investedness and contingency of every reading of her pictures – including this one).
The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.
The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told.
I find it interesting that many of Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills do not follow any standard film aspect ratios: #35 above for example. I believe that one might almost not notice this fact because of the naturally evocative power of the image, and all her images. We are given the title and accept it as though it were from a film. We know it is not; we know it is entirely contrived; but then again, we know that all film is entirely contrived, that images of women (and men, and of ethnicity, etc.) are all contrived, all reductions in one sense of another. Sherman is giving us our stereotypes, our comfort and our curse. While we are looking at her, at her dressing up before the camera as though she were not herself, we are looking at ourselves. It does not matter whether one is a woman or a man, when one looks at the image, one is looking at oneself. That is why we do not see the faulty aspect ratio. There is nothing more fascinating to oneself than oneself.
Why do images #48 and #50 remind me so much of David Lynch?
The text between these images you can take it or leave it. If the images contradict the text, the images win.
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)
I always though Berger was right. But I’m no longer so sure. And yet, I don’t doubt Berger.
Not a final word: What is it I see in myself when I look at Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills?
I see myself looking at myself looking at a photograph of a woman knowing that I am looking not at herself, but at her creation. I see my psychologiocal self swimming in a sea of signifiers. I see myself as a moral agent who makes choices to believe, or not believe. I see that I, as a singular individual, am plural.
Before and After: A Sample