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Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #30, 1979. Gelatin silver print, 7 x 9 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Purchased through funds from the National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Cindy Sherman

The Art

Untitled Film Still #30

In Untitled Film Still #30, a distraught woman stares slack-jawed from within a dimly lit room. The setting is claustrophobic, with its dark windows, shallow depth of field, and blurred detail. The photographer has chosen to focus on the woman’s face, forcing the viewer to confront its realities: The woman has been injured. Bruising around her eyes, an abrasion on her left cheek, and a swollen lower lip suggest she has been battered. The photograph’s menacing imagery and stark tonal contrast recall the stylizations of mid-twentieth-century film noir. Although it is impossible to know how this woman sustained her injuries, the immediacy of the pain in her eyes, her furrowed brow, and the wrenching emotion on her face places the viewer in the uncomfortable position of asking the questions “Who is she?” and “What has happened?”

Untitled Film Still #30 is from one of the most well-known photographic series in late 20th-century American art. Each of the 69 photographs in the Untitled Film Stills series shares the same ambiguous title, differentiated only by the number at the end. Made between 1977 and 1980, all of the photographs are black-and-white and feature the artist, Cindy Sherman, posed as fictional characters that evoke scenes from B-movies from the 1940s through the 1960s. Like many of the photographs in the series, Untitled Film Still #30, is set in an ambiguous interior (which was actually the artist’s apartment at the time). All of the works in the series are intended to comment on the stereotypical roles assigned to women in film and media—roles such as the ingénue, the housewife, and the femme fatale, among others. By staging these scenes, Sherman asks the viewer to consider how these roles—whether in media or in reality—were usually created by powerful men. In nearly every photograph, Sherman is shown alone, making her fictional character the subject of these photographs—and also the object of the viewer’s gaze. Sherman is intentionally considering the idea of the “gaze”—a form of looking that has elements of voyeurism—and she wants the viewer to consider what it means to be looking at these scenes, and how our perceptions might change if the person who is looking is male or female.

All of the Untitled Film Stills show Sherman in the midst of action, and all are meant to evoke a larger story. However, Untitled Film Still #30 is rare in the series in that it makes reference to violence and depicts the subject engaging with the viewer. While there is not enough information in the photograph to know how this character sustained her injuries—and it is reassuring to know that they are only makeup and were washed away after the photo shoot was finished—it is impossible to avoid culturally codified notions of battered women and domestic violence when looking at the image.

Throughout the Untitled Film Stills Sherman demonstrates her chameleon-like ability to inhabit different characters, artfully created through elaborate and carefully composed costumes, props, wigs, and makeup. Sherman’s astonishing ability to disguise herself, while still using her own body as the subject of the photograph, has been a theme throughout her career. For the Untitled Film Stills, Sherman performed all the roles to create the image in front of and behind the camera. In front of the camera she assumes an array of identities as model; behind the camera she is director, photographer, stylist, hairdresser, and makeup artist.

The Artist

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman is one of the most important artists living today and among the most significant female artists of the last century. A photographer who frequently uses herself as a subject, she was at the vanguard of female artists who rose to prominence concurrent with the feminist movement that began in the 1960s and continued into the 1980s.

Born in 1954, Sherman’s career as an artist began while a student in Buffalo, New York. The Untitled Film Stills—started in 1977, when the artist was only 23 years old—is her earliest, most groundbreaking series. Sherman followed this work with a number of photographic series, including the History Portraits, 1988–90, in which she dressed up as subjects portrayed in famous work in western art history. More recently, she again disguised herself in the series Society Portraits, monumental photographs in which Sherman made herself up as aging society women in elaborate settings to comment on societal ideas of the importance of youth, beauty, and money.

Because of the powerful ways in which she has looked at and critiqued notions of female identities—real and constructed—and how those identities are perceived, Sherman has become a key figure in late 20th– and early 21st-century art. In 1995, the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought the entire Untitled Film Stills series; in 2012 they hosted a retrospective exhibition of Sherman’s work. In recognition of her important contributions to visual art, Cindy Sherman was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1995.

Key Ideas

  • Creating a series of related works that comment on cultural stereotypes
  • Making a work of art that suggests a story beyond what is visible in an image
  • Commenting on the idea of the “gaze”, or who is looking at whom in art that depicts women
  • Highlighting the rise of new artistic perspectives in the 1970s, including female artists, through social advances encouraged by feminism and civil rights activism

Discussion Questions

  1. The artist, Cindy Sherman, named this photograph, Untitled Film Still #30. What is a film still?
  2. What adjectives would you use to describe the scene depicted in Untitled Film Still #30?
  3. Consider that the artist has staged this photograph as if it were a scene in a movie. What larger storyline does the image suggest? What would you like to know about this character and her circumstances? What details in the photograph help you to form ideas about who she might be or what might happen next?
  4. Notice that Sherman has depicted the woman looking out at the viewer. How would your impressions of this image or character change if the woman were not looking at you?
  5. What does it mean that this photograph was taken by a woman, who is also the actor in the image as well as the costume designer, set designer, and make-up artist?