An essay written as part of my Graphic Design BA. I kind of fell in love with both Cindy’s amazing work and personality while researching this!

Untitled Film Still #21

Defining postmodernism is notoriously difficult but, for the sake of this essay, I will focus on three of the main proponents of the movement: Jean-François Lyotard, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard, and their texts The Postmodern Condition, The Death of the Author and Simulacra and Simulation respectively. I aim to show how their theories were adopted and applied to criticism of the visual arts during the late 70s and early 80s, in this case to Cindy Sherman’s collection of photographs: Untitled Film Stills.

The End of the Metanarrative

Postmodernism can be understood in simple terms to be a move away from modernism. Modernist thinking dictated that the world could be understood through science and reason, that in time we would solve the world’s ills and understand and define the meaning of self and that which is real. This absolute and arguably restrictive idea of a ‘timeless, representational truth’ (Bertens, 1995, p5) came to form what French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard called in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) ‘metanarratives’, that could be applied universally.

In the late twentieth century the utopian ideals of modernist thinking were seen to have failed. Wars were still fought, millions still died from incurable disease and the human psyche was still as mysterious as it ever was. Lyotard defined his anti-modern and postmodern views as an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ and believed that the modernist ideas that underpinned society had become destabilized because of the advances made in the areas of communication, the mass media and in contemporary culture.

Postmodernist thinkers like Lyotard and Roland Barthes took a sceptical attitude to any claims of absolute truth, believing that each individual’s reality is dependent on time, place, culture and the personal experience of their lives. And so, as is the case with Sherman’s photographs, in a media saturated age this sense of reality is destabilized by the constant, unavoidable messages of contemporary culture and is therefore impossible to broadly define within the strict parameters of a grand narrative. Each one of us has our own sense of what is real. Each one of us is made up of a complex and constantly shifting set of narratives that are personal or ‘local’ to our place in the world and our experiences in and of it.

These postmodernist theories were applied to all forms of visual art, particularly in the late 70s and early 80s and Cindy Sherman’s celebrated series of photographs, Untitled Film Stills, fell under its spotlight.

Untitled Film Stills

Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #21 is one of a series of 69 black and white images taken by the photographer between 1977 and 1980. The first six pictures were conceived as a group for which she impersonated a single actress playing different roles at various points in an imagined career. What was initially an experiment grew into an expansive survey of feminine roles based on film imagery from the 50s and 60s.

Some, like Still #21 are taken outside but in the main they are taken in interiors carefully prepared and taken by the photographer. At first glance they appear to be from movies that we believe we may have seen and the roles that Sherman adopts are wide and varied. In Untitled Film Still #21 she plays the role of the working girl in the big city. Through the series he is in turn passive, seductive, vulnerable, a victim, a housewife or a hooker.

Each photograph is an apparent moment from a bigger, implied narrative. However this perceived narrative is not real, it is both the viewer’s and the photographer’s creation. The viewer’s preconceptions are based on what they have learned from female roles in popular culture. The viewer makes assumptions based on their experience of movie genres and the female stereotypes popularized in them during the 50s and 60s. This tells us that, knowingly or not, the signs and imagery of contemporary culture have been absorbed to such an extent that it affects a judgement of what is real.

Sherman also uses cinematic techniques like lighting, scenery, props and framing, and the images are untitled and numbered, just as a promotional movie still would be. These elements serve to further reinforce the notion of informed movie culture.

“I am trying to force the viewer into coming up with their own interpretation by the fact that I leave everything untitled. Ideally, I want people to question whatever preconceived notions they may have about a particular ‘scenario,’ about a character.”Cindy Sherman, 1998

During the post-war years, contemporary culture had begun to explode in America on both the cinema and television screens. This led to an idealized concept of women and femininity that took hold of the collective imagination. This was the period of Sherman’s youth and as the youngest child by nine years in a large family, she would dress up to mimic the stars of the screen and as a form of self-expression. Reflecting that she thought: ‘If you don’t like me this way, how about you like me this way?’ Cindy Sherman, 2010

This ‘time-honoured girl’s game of dressing up’ (Heartney, 2001, p57) continued into her work during the 1970s where she would photograph herself in different guises, outfits and scenarios. Being loosely part of the New York art scene at the time, her work was exhibited with photographers of a similar style and subject matter. In an era when postmodern and feminist theories were coming to increasing prominence, her work was ripe for analysis.

The Death of the Author and Simulacra

The modernist movement had believed that the photograph was a truthful document; that the camera never lied. Postmodern thinkers however questioned its authenticity believing it to be a construct, a fabrication that was affected by the viewer’s preconceptions and values, its experience. Roland Barthes’ text on literary criticism, Death of the Author, (1977), suggested that an author’s intentions in creating a text are irrelevant in its interpretation and therefore a writer’s interpretation of their own work is no more valid than the interpretations of the readers. The texts meaning, in Barthes’s words is consequently ‘de-originated’.

The series of transformations that Sherman subjects herself to was read in connection to Death of the Author. Her photographs were seen to be a form of representation that is ideologically motivated by both the creator and the viewer. The viewer’s interpretation is influenced by their exposure to Hollywood mythology and their perception of the female role in contemporary culture. The author, or in this case, the artist, ‘dies’. Her intentions become irrelevant.

Cindy Sherman’s characters can also be related to what French philosopher and postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard had called ‘simulacra’. In Simulacra and Simulation (1985), Baudrillard proposed that in an age of mass media we are exposed to so many signs or ‘codes’ transmitted to us that meaning, or our sense of what is real, has become destabilized; the fictional and the real are interwoven (Mitra, 2009). With Sherman’s photographs the viewer makes their judgment of the ‘actors’ and scenarios based on the received codes of movie culture, which is in itself a fiction, a Hollywood simulation of reality. To use Baudrillard’s words the imagined roles that Sherman is playing are ‘real without origin or reality: a hyperreal’. The hyperreal is a reproduction of the real and with the Untitled Film Stills we can no longer tell the difference between what is real and what is a representation of it. Sherman is a photographical artist playing an actor in a scene of a film that does not exist. She is a ‘fictional creature composed of fictions’ (Heartney, 2001, p57).

“The premise of post modernism is that we now live in a culture so saturated with media imagery and media models of how people live that our idea of how one lives one’s life and who one is, is made up of that kind of media myth. And in a sense it negates the idea of portraiture, the idea that you can dress up and go to a studio and somehow reveal your strength of character, or your inherent humanity or whatever. You don’t have an inherent humanity in the post modernist analysis of these things; we are all these composites of a lot of myths and narratives written by other people.” Colin Westerbeck, 2007

Conclusion

Sherman’s real motivations behind Untitled Film Stills may have been unclear and some of the perceived meanings unintentional  – she insists that at the time she wasn’t consciously working with any notion of postmodern or feminist theory – but her photographs chime with the postmodern idea that our visual perception is encoded, in this case by movie culture. By impersonating movie characters, implying feminine stereotypes and recreating the style of directors and movie genres, she is in accordance with the thinking of Barthes, detaching herself as the author of her work and has truly become in Baudrillarian terms ‘a copy of a copy’ (Bertens, 1995, p87).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barthes R (1977) The Death of the Author from (Image, Music, Text)

Baudrillard, J (1985). Simularcres et Simulation. France: Galilée.

Bertens, H (1995). The Idea of the Postmodern, a History. London: Routledge. p5.

Bertens, H (1995). The Idea of the Postmodern, a History. London: Routledge. P87.

Hattenstone, S. (2011). Cindy Sherman: Me, myself and I.

Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/jan/15/cindy-sherman-interview

Heartney, E (2001). Postmodernism. London: Tate Publishing. p57

Heartney, E (2001). Postmodernism. London: Tate Publishing. p59.

Jean-François Lyotard (1979). La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir. France: Les Editions de Minui. XXIV.

Mitra, B. (2009). Baudrillard – Ideas and concepts. Dr. Barbara Mitra interviews Dr. Alan How.

Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80osUvkFIzI

Unknown. (2003). Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills.

Available: www.serpentinegallery.org/images/teachers_notes_sherman.doc

Westerbeck, C. (2007). Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21.

Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/photography/genius/gallery/sherman.shtml

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