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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: Cindy Sherman - Untitled Film Stills

    One of the highlights of the Cindy Sherman Retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery is a series of seventy small, black and white photographs known as the Untitled Film Stills (1977-80). This is the first time the collection of photographs have been displayed together in their entirety in the UK. These atmospheric pictures with a distinctly cinematic quality launched Sherman’s career as an artist and they continue to bring in the crowds at this busy exhibition.

    In photographs designed to resemble stills from Hitchcock or 50s and 60s B movies, Sherman poses in era-appropriate hair, make up and clothing. The resulting pictures mimic the style of promotional shots, fixing a dramatic moment in her performance (she is both actress and photographer).

    The exhibition’s curator Paul Moorhouse describes the films stills as ‘Performance captured in portraits’. Each one tells a unique story. The series also works together as a coherent whole. The scenes look familiar although Sherman doesn’t recreate precise images from specific films.

    In one of film stills she is in the kitchen and appears to have dropped her shopping bag on the floor because of a knock at the door. In another picture she is walking in the City and looks as if she is staring at something across the street. She seems genuinely distressed in a few of the pictures or there is a sense of impending danger. On the other hand, some of the pictures are playful and light-hearted with exaggerated mannerisms. Sherman focuses on the idea of female identity. Overall, she is highlighting the clichéd and stereotyped way women are portrayed in film and media as imagined by filmmakers like Hitchcock.

    In truth, Sherman’s attitude to Hitchcock’s work is ambivalent. Rear Window is apparently her all-time favourite film and a major influence on the Untitled Film Stills especially with regards to the era they represent. In the film James Stewart’s character is spying on his neighbours living opposite and suspects a crime has taken place. When Grace Kelly says to him, ’Tell me everything you saw – and what you think it means’ –it could be a mantra for reading Sherman’s work. The idea is to try and decipher what is going on based only on the information available in the picture.

    The narrative in each of the film stills is unresolved and open to interpretation. For instance, in terms of the woman who is looking at something across the street, is she staring at someone or could she be waiting for the green walk sign? What happens next? We decide. This open-endedness lends them an interactive element and the viewer is involved in the creative process. 

    Most of all, these are beautifully composed photographs. Sherman was keen to avoid identifying the location of the pictures. A few of them look as if they were taken in Europe. It turns out all of the Film Stills were shot in New York City. Much of the rest of Sherman’s work is set in her studio. 

    The Untitled Film Stills stand out in this exhibition from the rest of her work for the sheer variety they offer, with a multitude of different storylines inspiring different reactions, and even her appearance varies considerably from picture to picture. Apparently they caused a stir when they first went on display mainly because no one had done anything like them before. Sherman was ahead of her time. They will without a doubt continue to intrigue future generations of viewers.




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