This is a frightening photograph. Two darkened windows frame a battered woman's head. She is stunned, mouth opened in shock. Her face is severely bruised; her wide-opened eyes blackened. The photographer, Cindy Sherman, presents her subject in an unforgiving close-up. If this were a real photograph of an abused woman, we could find it an invasion of privacy and too difficult to look at. But it is not a photograph of an actual person. It is a staged scene: the photographer has made herself up with a brunette wig, has applied theatrical makeup to create bruises, and has deliberately photographed herself in extreme close-up at the midpoint between two windows.
Knowing that this is a faked shot complicates matters. Is it a joke in poor taste? Or, is the photographer saying something more serious? This black-and-white photograph is from a series entitled Film Stills in which Sherman explores the stereotypical roles that women have had to play in the movies, television, and commercial advertising. A film still is a stock publicity photograph. Sherman appears in all of the photographs, but you hardly recognize the real Sherman in her costumes and makeup.
Sherman asks us to think about the typecast roles women play as shaped by popular media and the expectations of society—pinup, fashion plate, ingénue, housewife, co-ed, the battered woman, among others. As real as these types may be in actual life, Sherman would like us to see them as created by a culture whose values have been traditionally those of men in power. We are asked to question those values.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Film Still #30), 1979, gelatin silver print, 7 x 9 1/2 inches. Collection of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Purchase, through the National Endowment for the Arts grant. 1989.040 Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures Gallery.
Cindy Sherman. Photograph by David Seidner. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.