The Complete Untitled Film Stills

Cindy Sherman

It’s probably time that I returned these photo books I took out from the library months ago. (There were a few others, but I didn’t spend too much time with them before I returned them.)

Cindy Sherman — Untitled Film Stills #11

I’ve been admiring this full edition of the Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills for a while. Even if you are familiar with her work, this book is worth a browsing for her essay “The Making of Untitled,” which goes into the background of how she got into character building and her self-portrait techniques, as well as various anecdotes about the making of certain photos.

This collection of photos strikes me with its fictional intent. So often photography is implied to be some kind of eye to”the truth,” an unquestionable witness. But photos can often be misrepresentations of some kind of reality, even if they accomplish documenting some facts. Here there is no pretense of truth, the subject of each one is the photographer: disguised and costumed, choreographed and posed. The idea of self-portraits is subverted — instead of taking self-portraits to convey ideas about or representations of herself, Sherman is taking self-portraits to create characters.

I like the mystery and the implied (and encouraged) stories. Sherman writes in the introduction how she attempted to imply people sitting just outside of the frame by the edge of a chair, the character’s look in a specific direction, and even a small cloud of cigarette smoke like someone had just exhaled. I love the idea of an image that communicates something that isn’t seen.

The photos speak a lot, some have many details in the facial expressions and backgrounds to process, but at the same time they are almost muted. It’s all a guessing game, trying to understand what the photographer’s motivations were for each shot, and knowing somehow that maybe she doesn’t know the whole story about each one. These images work entirely with what we bring to them and invent around them. The characters are presented in their sets and in costume, but the context of a narrative has been stripped away — yet we are still expecting to understand the plot even though it’s missing.

The photos aren’t always technically “good” (I’m thinking of at least one that is blurry and a couple that are washed out due to an accident while developing), but that is part of what lends their weight to the performance — a collection of stray stills from some old obscure film.

Cindy Sherman — Untitled Film Stills #50