Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #72″ (1980)
by Peter Zimmerman
In 1980, Cindy Sherman chose to finish the Untitled Film Stills series, feeling that she had exhausted much of her subject material and had begun repeating herself. Because the photographs evoke such great nostalgia for the 1950s, mysterious European film stars, urban lifestyle, and stylized cinematic expanses, Sherman was worried about becoming too concrete or falling back on old tricks to achieve similar effects.
The closure of the Film Stills series marked the end of Sherman’s exclusive usage of black and white film. Ever since 1980, color has been a vital force in Sherman’s work, illuminating both the visual field with an extremely wide range of hue and the intricate detail that would soon infuse so many of her images (such as in the Fairy Tales and Disasters series). Although it is still possible for color to be an index for time (Technicolor as index of the 1930s, etc.), nostalgia as a motif in Sherman’s work mutated with each series, becoming either subtler, more potent, or unimportant throughout the collected works.
“Untitled #72″ (1980) is an image taken from the Rear Screen Projections series from 1980-1981. Cindy Sherman confessed that one of her main desires in starting this series was to work more exclusively from home, instead of on location (much of the Film Stills was shot in New York, Arizona, etc.) Each of the Projections show Sherman, once again dressed up in character, closely cropped and superimposed atop a projected background. These backgrounds are made blurry, thereby dismantling their specificity. The use of background is both similar and different from that of the Film Stills, in that some photographs in the Stills announced their geographical space without any mitigating forces (especially the ones from Arizona), but many use the construct of an apartment/hotel/urban living space as a visual realm, which through its ubiquity and, by extension, non-specificity, uses the construct as leverage but still allows for its easy consumption. However, other than a few exceptions, the Projections break from the Film Stills in the obfuscation of the geospacial. Rather than focus on the potential for universality in these non-specific, blurred background, I believe the obscured nature are more important in announcing the blatant artifice of the image. Upon investigation of these images, it quickly becomes apparent that the subject in the photograph has been placed on top of another image, mitigated by technical manipulation.
Sherman once again uses her body as a vehicle for impersonation. For each of the Projections photographs, she adopts characters different than the ones from the Film Stills. Instead of working within the milieu of the cultural memories of women in 1950s films, Sherman dons a more contemporary outfit, befitting of the 1970s and early 1980s. Also, the expressions of many of the women seem more confident, hopeful, and self-assured. Gone are the images of runny makeup, wide eyes, and fearful faces, and instead the Projections display women in modes of pseudo-liberation. For example, in “Untitled #76″ (1980) the subject is drinking a beer and looking at something off in the distance, thereby showing her ability to perform an action within the normative male code.
“Untitled #72″ (1980) is a great example of the progression of Cindy Sherman’s portrayal of women within her photographs. By constantly superimposing a cropped image of woman over the blurred background, Sherman removes the necessity for reading the image as wholly plausible; rather, the background denotes apparent artifice, which then allows for the image to enter into a space that is neither “real” nor “imaginary.” (I use these terms from Lacan at this moment, but will delve more deeply into Lacanian theory vis-a-vis Sherman/Levine later in October) By announcing from the beginning that this image cannot exist in reality, but instead is a composite of two separate images, it pulls into questions of space, time, intention, and narrative. Is this from a movie? Is it in the real world? When were these photographs taken? What is the backstory? Why does Cindy Sherman even make these images?
There’s a lot to unpack from the Rear Screen Projections. Perhaps by announcing from the outset the blatant artificiality of the image construction, Sherman moves the importance of the image from the location and instead locates it within the narrative structure and physical display of the female body. Whereas the Film Stills were virtually obsessed with artificial narrative, which then supplanted the images with an unending spread of potential narratives, the Rear Screen Projections are perhaps less dense. Although one could argue that the backdrop still imposes some restrictions, it appears that these women are not necessarily bound by their physical surroundings. Where then does one turn to locate meaning? Perhaps there is no prescribed meaning. Perhaps it is simply a picture of a women in some moment of her daily life, placed above a potentially ironic background, or one that just struck Sherman’s fancy. However, this is an intellectual cop out, and if one spends time visually decoding these photographs there is an overwhelming amount of substance to these images, which therefore negates the motion to the simple explanation. Instead, the Rear Screen Projections complicate the dialogue Sherman began a few years earlier with the Untitled Film Stills — what is the role of women in society and how are they displayed?
Useful in a reading of these images is the work of Laura Mulvey and her discussion of the male gaze. While this will factor in more with the Centerfolds series, I believe there are still many moments in the Projections that engage the theory. The images are constructed within the horizontal format, which is also reminiscent of a projection screen for films. This is yet another tie to the Untitled Film Stills that refuses to be an easy comparison, because whereas in that series each woman seems to be either at odds with her environment or completely consumed by it, in these pictures each woman stands in front of a backdrop that either extends beyond the frame or is neatly framed at the edge of the photograph. It therefore suggests possible continuity, which opens the chance for reading narrative into these characters, but it also opens up the field so that they are not restricted by their surroundings. While the horizontal format would denote a submission to the male gaze, most women, if not all, in this series are standing, thus also thrusting them into the vertical format at the same time that they’re within the horizontal. This could be seen as a complication of the male gaze, as the format is pleasurable for looking, but because they’re mostly vertical it shows an assertion on the part of the women before only hinted at with the Film Stills. Also, these women are markedly more confident in their appearance. In this image, the woman looks at something beyond the camera, but she dons a slight smile, which can potentially be read as coy or simply contemplative. The hat and shirt, combined with the usage of color, thrusts the image into the milieu of contemporary society, which thereby also makes these women more approachable as subjects. They could be the factors of the late 1960s feminist revolutions, whereas the women from the Film Stills could be the ones who fell victim to the restrictive 1950s. Lastly, there’s a casualness about the subject– her shirt is unbuttoned but does not invite increased sexual attention, her eyes are untroubled, and her face is relaxed. This is not the case in all of the images from this series, but there is a marked difference in the rise of casualness in most of their demeanors.
The Rear Screen Projections marked a movement away from the Film Stills, in terms of subject matter, geospatial ordering, and the advent of color, but they share much with the rest of Sherman’s oeuvre up until 1980. They still question the role of women in society, how we as a viewing community consume these images, and what meaning they propose.