By Dahlia Schweitzer
Most known for her Untitled Film Stills, American photographer Cindy Sherman has consistently produced work since the 1970s that is judged to be some of the most successful work produced by any American photographer. Sherman’s photographs are an encyclopedia of body language, identities performed with carefully arranged figures. The body is a collection of limbs used to convey roles, personalities, and situations. Each gesture, each object, is loaded with meaning. Her photographs are never casual snapshots or self-portraits. Rather, they are explorations of arrangement and archetype. She questions stereotype and learned behavior through her compositions and subjects, and through the diorama-like environments she creates for each scenario. She exposes the ruptures under the surface by taking everyday life and shifting it off-kilter, examining society’s expectations for appearance and behavior. Her photographs work for the attention they bring to that which does not fit, to the exact point of the tear.
Born in New Jersey in 1954, Sherman spent her childhood in Long Island, immersed in the television and culture of the era. The 1950s combined worries of nuclear war with dreams of a better life, conformity with capitalism, amidst a growing blitzkrieg of images that sold everything from washing machines to cigarettes, bras to Cadillacs. What better time to be watching (and absorbing) television? What better to way to understand the constant consuming at the heart of American life? What better way to sow the seeds that would germinate into the Untitled Film Stills? The context of her early years not only influenced the Untitled Film Stills but also all of Sherman’s later work. Key aspects of what it means to be a woman—established in our cultural vernacular in the 1950s—are evident in Sherman’s work today.
Containing sixty-nine black and white images, sometimes crudely developed and a modest 8.5x11 inches in size, with no titles or explicit citations, the Untitled Film Stills became Sherman’s most well known significant body of work. Reverberating with references to the 1950s and film noir, the series of photographs plumbed the depths of the common cultural mind through images of the Girl Next Door and the Girl in Trouble, images we recognized because they told stories we knew, women whose roles and faces we had seen before. However, despite the familiarity, there was no specific reference point; Sherman was not simply recreating and re-presenting an original. Her appropriation of cultural imagery and stereotype was broader than that. She set out to document all the facets of “The American Woman.”
Especially significant is not just the art of the masquerade, but the artificiality of its construction. The glamorously perfect facades of the women who fill films and advertising serve to conceal the actual body that lies underneath—a raw, wet and bloody expanse that would slowly creep out in Sherman’s later work, eventually evolving into the gaping and damaged bodies of her only feature-length film, the horror-comedy Office Killer, released in 1997. The tension between inner and outer, between the surface and the real underneath, was hinted at with the Untitled Film Stills, a hint that would only grow louder and messier with Sherman’s later work.
In 1980, Sherman’s aesthetic underwent two significant changes. She began shooting in color, and she began using projected images of locations behind her, rather than shooting in actual physical locations. The effect of the projections not only created a shallower depth of field, thus flattening the image, but it also began Sherman’s move towards isolation and alienation, another trend which would surface later in Office Killer. Her women were no longer allowed outside, much as the characters in Office Killer also appeared trapped indoors.
A year later, another significant change occurred—Sherman’s images went horizontal, like a movie screen. Commissioned by ArtForum, this series were called the Centerfolds. These images were explicitly internal and indoors, claustrophobic and dramatically lit. There was no pretense of an outside world, however artificially implied. Sherman’s facial expressions throughout the series were also more intense and more emotional than in her earlier work. Unlike our conventional expectations for centerfold-type imagery, Sherman often looked lonely, upset, or afraid. A darkness was creeping in.
This darkness would take a firm hold in her next series, a set of fashion images commissioned by fashion designer Dianne Benson for Interview magazine and by French fashion house Dorothée Bis for French Vogue. These images were also atypical for their intended use. Described as “silly, angry, dejected, exhausted, abused, scarred, grimy and psychologically disturbed,”  they were a response by Sherman to the confines and expectations placed on women by the fashion world. Sherman herself says about the experience: "From the beginning there was something that didn't work with me, like there was friction. I picked out some clothes I wanted to use. I was sent completely different clothes that I found boring to use. I really started to make fun, not of the clothes, but much more of the fashion. I was starting to put scar tissue on my face to become really ugly." 
It is not simply that the photographs were shot with overly bright, unflattering light, or that the poses were awkward and sometimes angry. What makes this series stand out is the model herself. Sherman’s role, the characters she was playing, was evolving. Not only did she grotesquely parody the kind of image normally found in fashion magazines, subverting restrictions commonly imposed on women in terms of their appearance and behavior, but she began to suggest that the perfect body which had appeared in her earlier work, the perfect body on the pages of every fashion magazine, was only one half of the equation. The other half was the other extreme—the grotesque, the disgusting, the imperfect—the internal. The faces we normally see on the cover of Vogue, the models in their editorial spreads, photoshopped and styled to perfection, are nothing more than a shell concealing what lies beneath. This surface, still present in Sherman’s early photographs, was now “dissolving to reveal a monstrous otherness behind the cosmetic facade.”  In Sherman’s own notes to herself for the series, she wrote phrases the opposite of what we would expect to find in connection with a fashion spread, like “throwing-up, drooling, snot running down nose, bag-lady like; end of bad night; fat person; shooting up, snorting coke; bleeding, dying, etc.; but clothes perfect looking.”  It is clear that Sherman’s fascination is with the tension between extremes, between the messy and the neat, between the impeccable outside and the bloody inside, with the struggle to conceal our humanness with fashion and cosmetics.
The façade would crack further in Sherman’s later work, which grew explicitly horrific, the external torn open, and even disappearing outright, as the internal was fully exposed. Full of menacing monsters, dismembered body parts, and sinister lighting, her Fairy Tales series (1985) and her Disasters series (1986-89) seem inspired by the stuff of nightmares. If her earlier work hinted at this inner nightmare, now Sherman had thrown the door wide open. The journey that began in the 1970s would take a pronounced turn with the Disasters series, as Sherman abandoned the figure completely in favor of “the disgust of sexual detritus, decaying food, vomit, slime, menstrual blood, hair. These traces represent the end of the road, the secret stuff of bodily fluids that the cosmetic is designed to conceal.”  The body had deteriorated, the façade had been destroyed, the internal made fully external. Sherman had finally exposed the messy reality of not only what it meant to be a woman, but what it meant to be human. Sherman had removed the mask, chipped away at the armor, and taken a hard look at the wounds, guts, and gore that make us real.
In 1997, Office Killer, Cindy Sherman’s only film, would be released—even if that release was exceedingly short-lived. A story of a lowly and modest copywriter, Dorine Douglas (played by Carol Kane), who wreaks havoc on her workplace as she kills off those who upset her (or the status quo), Office Killer is truly the tale of underdog makes good, with Norah (Jeanne Tripplehorn), as the magazine’s manager, the antagonist embezzling funds from the magazine as the staff is laid off and downsized.
However, on a much more complex level, Office Killer combines concurrent fears of technology and contagion with the film noir aesthetic—yet it is not a typical noir film. If 1940s noir represented insecurity about people’s places in the workforce and at home during a time of great transition, in the 1990s things were even more dire. Bodies were literally and metaphorically disappearing as a result of AIDS and technological developments. Communication became abstract, anonymous, and sterile. A pervasive sense of isolation began to spread, exacerbated by a growing realization of the vulnerability of human boundaries to contagion and contamination. What makes Office Killer a noir film is not only its tale of exploited workers and a vengeful protagonist in a bleak and oppressive urban environment, but its depiction of a complex anti-hero searching for her place in the world, avenging the wrongs done to the things and people she cares about, preserving and rearranging bodies in an environment that speaks to warmth, nurture, and order rather than cold, productive, anonymous uncertainty.
While Sherman does not physically appear in Office Killer, she has said that Dorine is “a stand-in” for herself, and it is impossible not to recognize the parallels between the character of Dorine and Sherman herself. Not only does Dorine bear a visual resemblance to a Sherman character, but in the final shot of Dorine in the car’s rearview mirror—hair blonde, sunglasses chic and retro—she could be Sherman herself, yet another devotee of the power of makeup to transform, a societally sanctioned form of postmodern role-play.
The decaying corpses in Office Killer are bodies literally turning inside out, the internal exposed without the pretense of perfection; an uncomfortable confrontation with everything we hope to conceal and avoid. Part of the reason horror is so disturbing is because it exposes our tenuous hold on all that is pretty and perfect. Death, after all, is always just around the corner, a constant reminder of the fragile grip we have over life and our own bodies. It is not only that the bodies got bigger as Sherman’s work progressed, but that we also get the full story in Office Killer, not just a captured still. We get the sound and the movement, the before, during, and after—and we get to watch the decay. We see the maintenance, arrangement, and presentation of these bodies.
Sherman’s most recently exhibited work, from 2016, depicts her as aging starlets from the 1920s and 1930s poignantly depicting the struggle to maintain youth and beauty in the face of age, an ongoing motif in Sherman’s work over the last two decades. With the Untitled Film Stills, Sherman had turned our attention to the tension between the screen image and the off screen self, emphasizing not only the art of the masquerade but also the artificiality of its construction. However, this latest series does not document roles of women common to the screen. This latest series looks at women performing as themselves, or, to be more precise, as the self they wish to be.
These images capture not only the struggle of aging Hollywood beauties to seize a few more moments of fame, but also the struggle of women everywhere to keep up with a society that equates sagging flesh with neglect and wrinkles with an expiration date. After all, no industry is crueler to the aging process than Hollywood. In a culture where women over thirty struggle to find roles on screen or on TV, Sherman brings her critical eye to how just how much of our identity is determined by youth, appearance, and the perfect pose.
1. Elizabeth Manchester, “Untitled #126.” Tate Collection. Tate, Oct. 2001.
2. Cindy Sherman qtd. in Sandy Nairne, State of the Art: Ideas and Images in the 1980s. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967, pp. 136.
3. Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity. London: British Film Institute, 1996, pp. 70.
4. Sherman, Cindy. Cindy Sherman Retrospective. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997, pp. 124.
5. Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity. London: British Film Institute, 1996, pp. 71.
Dr. Dahlia Schweitzer is a pop culture critic and writer. Her latest book, Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World, explores depictions of pandemics and outbreak narratives in contemporary American film and television. She is also the author of Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer: Another Kind of Monster, as well as essays in publications including Cinema Journal, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Hyperallergic, Jump Cut, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and The Journal of Popular Culture.
Additional Resources on Cindy Sherman
Bibliography of Further Reading/Viewing
Avgikos, Jan. "Cindy Sherman, Metro Pictures." ArtForum, September 2004.
Burton, Johanna, ed. Cindy Sherman, The October Files. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.
Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Cindy Sherman: Transformations. DVD. Directed by Paul Tschinkel. New York, NY: Inner-Tube Video, 2002.
Cruz, Amanda, Amelia Jones, and Cindy Sherman. Cindy Sherman Retrospective. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Frankel, David. “Cindy Sherman Talks to David Frankel.” ArtForum, March 2003.
Friedman, Martin. Close Reading: Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2005.
The Hasselblad Award 1999: Cindy Sherman. Goeteberg, Sweden: Hasselblad Center, 2000.
Krauss, Rosalind. Cindy Sherman, 1975–1993. New York, NY: Rizzoli Press, 1993.
Morris, Catherine. The Essential Cindy Sherman. New York, NY: Harry Abrams, 2001.
Morris, Catherine, et al. Cindy Sherman: Working Girl. St. Louis, MO: Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 2005.
Nobody’s Here But Me: Cindy Sherman. Dir. Mark Stokes. Arena and Cinecontact Production for BBC and the Arts Council of Great Britain; BBC2, 1994.
Tomkins, Calvin. “Her Secret Identities.” The New Yorker, May 15, 2000.
Waller, Gregory, ed. American Horrors. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
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