Archives for category: BA Graphic Design

I hold the The Tricorn (1964 – 2001) in only fond regard. This was a place where, in chronological order, my parents met, I cut my graffiti teeth, I bought records, I nightclubbed, bought clothes, bought more records, learnt (kind of) to DJ and finally worked.

The complex provoked and continues to provoke extreme reactions. A sprawling Brutalist complex that contained a shopping centre, apartments, car park and even a nightclub, the Tricorn was designed by Rodney Gordon at the Owen Luder Partnership and was completed in 1964 to general acclaim. In 1967 it won the Civic Trust Award for its “exciting visual composition”, three years later it was voted Britain’s fourth ugliest building. Go figure.

The Tricorn, like many similar, system built concrete structures built at this time soon both fell out of favour, fashion and into disrepair. Before it’s demolition nobody lived in the apartments besides pigeons, the club had long shut down and most of the shops had long moved on. The place had been left pretty much to rot, becoming a foreboding mass of crumbling concrete, a blot on the landscape. Despite appeals for it’s regeneration these were drowned out by the majority and the sad and tatty Tricorn was finally put out of it’s misery to a spiteful fanfare in 2004.

Personally, I’m sad it was demolished and I’m certainly not alone. Before its demolition, hoardings were put up around the site and Portsmouth City Council invited the artist Jeanie Kerswell to create a public art project which would both decorate the hoardings and display Portsmouth residents’ memories of the Tricorn. ‘The Colour Happened On The Inside’ concept covered the boards with Marmite jars (a neat take on ‘you either love it or hate it’) with white labels to be used for handwritten recollections of the soon to be demolished building.

What followed was an emotive set of comments from people who, like me, had learned to love the complex despite it’s failings. Somehow,within it’s alleyways, arcades and damp, crumbling facades a community had built up. Whether it had happened in the way Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon had intended was besides the point. While the bigger shops like Argos and Virgin Megastore (why isn’t anything a ‘mega’ anything anymore?) moved out of the building, a network of independent traders did their thing in Charlottes Superstore; an indoor market which seemed to absorb the noisiness and chaos of the Charlotte Street market outside.

In my era Charlottes and The Tricorn was home to the independent clothes shops, One Legged Jockey and Rif Raf (which was run by Pete Voss, the eventual lead singer of Indie Dance mob Campag Velocet), Domino Records which sold half decent Hip Hop and House music, a pet shop (with an agressive parrot if I recall), the obligatory greasy spoon and the haven for misfits, miscreants and all round good people, Mondo Comics.

The whole place was a bit of a mecca, a slice of alternative culture rarely found in Portsmouth at this time. This was people making the most of what they had. It’s my understanding that these independent shops were able to flourish as the rents were so low due to the poor state of The Tricorn but it’s interesting how this thriving community formed from nothing much.

Town planners of the late 60s and 70s had tried and so often failed to ‘create’ communities by building housing estates with schools, shops and pubs bolted on. But communities don’t just happen by plonking a group of people into one purpose built set of buildings. They evolve, untidily and unpredictably. Perhaps this was part of the reason The Tricorn failed; at least in it’s intended purpose. Structurally of course, it suffered the same problems as other Brutalist style buildings of that era; the bare concrete soon deteriorated when exposed to the unforgiving weather of the South Coast and the buildings warren-like layout and barely negotiable alleyways and foreboding voids seem quite bizarre on reflection.

The Tricorn demolition finally started in 2001, accompanied by a jovial live radio broadcast and torrential rain. What stands in it’s place is a car park.

Tricorn 3D walkthrough

The Tricorn: Life and Death of a Sixties Icon by Celia Clark and Robert Cook


I went to Murcia in Spain recently and found myself wandering around taking photos of typography and book covers. It’s dawned on me that since embarking on my Graphic Design degree I have, happily, turned into a type geek.

Shop sign

TipografiaShop sign

Neon signage

Car parkAlso, spent a lot of time in a great bookshop called antano that seemed to have the best book covers in Spain in one beautiful space. Love the illustration on this book cover below. Buy it here.

El Pajaro de Fuego

And I bought the lovely (and kind of pointless) book, Laberintos (Labyrinths or mazes) below. Buy that here.Laberintos


Final poster concept



The Chaumont Festival team wanted to refresh the student competition, embracing the diverse media that feature in graphic design output: publications, printed objects, video, interactive productions, etc. In light of this, the judges wanted to invite the students to think about an essential component of graphic design: writing.

Writing can put words to what images cannot explicitly say or convey. But this statement overlooks the role that the designer’s choices can play in reading practices. The same text, in different media and with specific page or screen layouts, will be read and appropriated differently. As a result, there will be not one but multiple readings; not one reader, but readers. Formatting text and choosing a medium therefore amount to devising reading scenarios. And this is what the jury hopes to read, discover and test!

Entrants are free to choose their text, although it is best to avoid casually choosing a text – as if for some laying-out exercise. The text can be in English or French. Whether it is written for the occasion or borrowed, its title and source should be mentioned.


For this brief I chose to focus on the generalizations made about different nationalities – in this case the French and the English and reminding the viewer that whilst we may be different as nationalities as human beings we are all the same.

The poster text is based loosely on the painting The Treachery of Images by Rene Magritte. A realistic looking pipe below which Magritte has written ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ – ‘This is not a pipe’. This appears to be a contradiction, however, it is of course not an actual pipe but a painting of one.Magritte’s work was intended to challenge the observers preconditioned perceptions of reality and this, along with the French language used for the text has informed my poster design.

My text reads: ‘Je ne suis pas un frog’ or ‘I am not a frog’ in French and ‘I am not a rosbif’ in English. The insults are written in the language that would be used by the respective nationality.Both ‘rosbif’ (roast beef in English) and ‘frog’ are mildly offensive, almost accepted insults from the French to the English and vice versa. Both have long histories, so long in the case of ‘frog’ that it’s original meaning has been lost. Likewise, do many of us really know why the French like to call us rosbifs?

The texts are intended to challenge the viewer into considering the generalisations. I am English, and therefore to some Frenchmen I am a ‘rosbif’ and so, like Magriites pipe I am and am not a rosbif. This is the same for the French text; of course the Frenchman is not a frog, but some may consider him so.

The typefaces I have chosen for each line of text also enforce the idea of generalisation. The French text is written in Papier sans typeface, a script font chosen to represent an idea of ‘Frenchness’. The colour of this text is the blue of the French national flag.The English text is written using Gill Sans font and I have used this as it is known to represent ‘Britishness’ because of it’s use by well known institutions like the BBC and Penguin books. Its colour is the red from the St. Georges Cross.

Between the texts is a Venn diagram made up of two semi-transparent circles, or ‘elements’ (English and French) that intersect to create a white segment. The diagram and its intersection represents our difference (nationality) and our similarity – we are all human.

The whole piece is on a pale blue background, chosen to represent the English Channel that separates us as nations.

The two pieces of text are arranged so that the poster can be rotated 180 degrees to put either the French or English text at the top. The circles of the Venn diagram of course, will always remain in the correct position.

Ideally, I would have liked the French text and Venn circle to be printed one side of the poster and the English the other but this proved to be inaccurate in terms of alignment.



Robin Hood Gardens, Alison and Peter Smithson,...

Image via Wikipedia

After World War II, Britain required massive and rapid reconstruction. Modernist architects were enlisted to rebuild its schools and housing as cheaply and as quickly as possible. This sense of urgency meant the humanist ideals of the Modernists were ignored with long lasting and ocassionaly tragic consequences.

Post-war reconstruction

Even before the devastating bombings of World War II, affordable housing in Britain was in a terrible condition. Industrialisation had brought new markets, a consumer boom and prosperity for the propertied classes and towns and cities had expanded with little planning. The living conditions for the people that turned the wheels of Industrialisation – the working classes – were dirty and cramped.

Victory in the War had caused a swell of optimism. There was a feeling that the need to rebuild Britain was also an opportunity to build a new nation both socially and structurally; a chance to rectify the mistakes of the past. This meant that concepts previously ignored could be considered. British authorities began to look to Modernist architecture to solve its housing crisis. Politically, two Parliamentary Acts provided the Modernists with an opportunity to rebuild Britain in its image. The Butler Education Act of 1944 and The New Towns Act of 1946 ensured that by the mid 50s an incredible 2,500 schools would be built and ten entirely new towns were either under construction or on the drawing board. This required a fast, efficient solution.

‘Béton brut’ and the new brutalists

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret or Le Corbusier’s ideas for urban planning and construction were shaped by an admiration of 20th century engineering principles: mass production, logical design and function over style. He believed these processes could be applied to the design of rationally planned cities to provide a healthy, humane alternative to the chaos of the Victorian slum. Writing in 1921 in the magazine L’Esprit Nouveau, Le Corbusier stated that a house should be ‘un machine a habiter’: a machine for living in.

Le Corbusier

Auguste Perret (who Corbusier had worked with at the beginnining of his career) first championed the use of reinforced concrete for construction and Corbusier would later use this material in his designs in the most efficient way. The concrete would remain uncovered, still bearing the marks of the wooden shutters used to form it. This came to be known as ‘béton brut’ or ‘raw concrete’. The process would go on to be used widely in the urban regeneration of Britain because of the speed of construction and its affordability.

Although Corbusier was prolific, many of his urban plans never left the drawing board but his ambitious ideas sparked debate and shaped the future of Modernist architecture. In particular, his successful Unité d’habitation in Marseliies became a prototype for many poor imitations of his social housing vision in Britain during the 60s and 70s.

Unité d'habitation

Alison and Peter Smithson formed a formidable British architectural partnership in the mid 20th century, pushing forward the cause of Modernism. The Smithsons were uncompromising in their determination to define a new approach to Modernist architecture, which, like Corbusier, they believed could exploit the low cost and simplicity of mass-produced materials and pre-fabricated components. In his text The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic, the Smithson’s friend, design theorist Reyner Banham hailed them as the pioneers of “the new brutalism”, a play on ‘Béton brut’. Although a kind of architectural establishment in-joke, the term stuck.

Alison and Peter Smithson.

Although resolutely Modernist, the Smithsons attacked the urbanist dogma of architects like Le Corbusier who stated that cities should be zoned into specific areas for living, working, leisure and transport and that urban housing should consist of tall, widely spaced towers – the machines for living in. They worried that this vision would lead to sterile cities, devoid of community which would lead the residents to feel individually isolated. In 1953 the Smithsons wrote:

‘Belonging’ is a basic human need – its associations are of the highest order. From ‘belonging’ – identity – comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where the spacious redevelopment frequently fails.

This statement proves that despite the failure of some of their work, they, like Corbusier were concerned with combining modern architecture and technology as ‘a means of expression that would serve the common good’. (Khan H-U, 2009 p152)

In the late 60s, the pair were given the opportunity to indulge their urban vision on a site in Poplar, East London. Robin Hood Gardens is an example of their ‘streets in the sky’ concept. The wide balconies – the ‘street’ – which connected the flats, allow for its residents to walk, play or even cycle along them. Like many projects built around this time the building was plagued by structural flaws, overcrowding and a high crime rate, leaving it unloved by many of its residents. Then and since it has been derided as an example of architectural folly rather than the model for progressive social housing the Smithsons had hoped for.

Robin Hood Gardens

The Brutalist blueprint

In 1961, the ‘streets in the sky’ concept inspired the design of Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate. Park Hill was intended to provide local authority housing for thousands of people. At the time, Sheffield was a largely working class industrial city whose best days were behind it. Sheffield Council hoped that the estate would signal the rejuvenation of the city and to provide quality homes in a deprived area.

Park Hill’s problems quickly became apparent. It was intended to be a version of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation but the estate allowed some of the worst aspects of urban life to remain. The structure was full of shadowy spots and escape routes and although it included shops, a school and a pub, it did not allow for any of the vibrancy or diversity that had evolved organically in the area over decades or even centuries.

Park Hill Estate

This style of council housing became the blueprint during the 60s and 70s and almost all of the developments suffered the same problems. Bare concrete was an easy target for vandalism and the poorly planned voids and alleyways within the buildings created an atmosphere of claustrophobia and fear. The unforgiving climate of Britain attacked bare concrete, leaving the steel reinforcements exposed. The structures soon looked shabby and uninviting and in a climate of economic strife and mass unemployment the Brutalist aesthetic could not have been more unwelcome.

Foundations built on sand

The beginning of the end for Brutalist, ‘system-built’ social housing was the disaster at Ronan Point, East London in 1968. The high rise collapsed after a gas explosion leaving four residents dead. System-built flats had become a popular construction method with 470,000 new flats and houses built this way the previous year. This led to quality control being largely absent. An examination of the joints of Ronan Point found them to be filled with newspaper not concrete. Walls did not rest on beds of mortar but on levelling bolts, enabling rainwater to seep into the joints. The whole weight of the building was resting on these bolts and consequently the gas explosion led the block to collapse. To the general public the disaster meant that not only were these already unpopular buildings ugly, they were unsafe too.

Ronan Point

The eagerness for this and other system-builds of the time was politically motivated. Municipal leaders saw high density housing as a solution to population drain, giving them more leverage in Whitehall. A subsidy was even given to local councils for every floor built over five storeys, creating a clear financial incentive to build higher and quicker. Ronan Point could be seen as a symbol of post-war political rhetoric. When the public saw the high rises shooting up they could be sure that the government was fulfilling its promises to rebuild. The collapse of the high rise left this rhetoric sounding increasingly hollow.

Other Brutalist projects followed, some even becoming successful and icons of pop culture like Erno Goldfingers Trellick Tower and in recent years there has been a reconsideration of the Brutalist aesthetic – Park Hill for example has recently been rethought and regenerated, however the disaster at Ronan Point spelt the end for widespread use of the New Brutalist blueprint.


While Modernism had arrived on a wave of great optimism in Britain, this was soon replaced by harsh reality. Britain’s industrial cities were bound by generations who had worked in its mines and factories and although life was hard, the working class had a clear sense of identity and a feeling that they belonged. Economic depression, the end of industry and mass unemployment during the 70s and 80s left the working classes almost as shellshocked as the generation that had emerged from the War. The familiar landscape they had been bought up in had been replaced with poorly built constructions that left them feeling isolated and dehumanised. This was not the urban utopia that the Modernists had wanted to build; it was their governments discount version of it.

Despite their failures, Modernist and even Brutalist buildings have proved that when built soundly and cared for they can be successful. Sadly, social housings failures during this period led many to lay the blame at the feet of the Modernists, but blaming visionaries like the Smithsons and Le Corbusier as the architects of the failure ignores the deep and genuine concern for human health and comfort that underpinned their work. It is a tragedy that the utopian dream of Modernist architecture could not be realised; this was a missed opportunity to rebuild a better Britain, structurally and socially, one that may never occur again.


Lowe N (2009) Mastering Modern British History. NY, Palgrave Macmillan.

Bedaria F (1991) A Social History of England 1851-1990. London, Routledge.

Khan H-U (2009) International Style. GmbH, Taschen.


Figure 1: Le Corbusier. Nina Leen/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Jan 01, 1946

Figure 2: Unité d’habitation. Photographer and date unknown.

Figure 3 Alison and Peter Smithson. Photographer and date unknown.

Figure 4: Robin Hood Gardens. Sandra Lousada. Date unknown.

Figure 5: Park Hill, Sheffield. Photographer and date unknown.

Figure 6: Ronan Point. The Daily Telegraph, 1968.

Lose or loose?


Another project that’s bubbling under Mission Flash is a poster design competition for the Chaumount (I pronounce it Cha’mone but I’m a philistine) Festival. Here’s the brief and linkage to the festival.


The Chaumont Festival team wanted to refresh the student competition, embracing the diverse media that feature in graphic design output: publications, printed objects, video, interactive productions, etc. in light of this, the judges wanted to invite the students to think about an essential component of graphic design:writ ing.Writing can put words to what images cannot explicitly say or convey. But this statement overlooks the role that the designer’s choices can play in reading practices. The same text, in different media and with specific page or screen layouts, will be read and appropriated a result, there will be not one but multiple readings; not one reader, but readers. Formatting text and choosing a mediumtherefore amount to devising reading scenarios. and this iswhat the jury hopes to read, discover and test!entrants are free to choose their text, although it is best to avoid casually choosing a text – as if for some laying-out exercise.The text can be in english or French. Whether it is is written for the occasion or borrowed, its title and source should be mentioned.and now… Get “texting”

Righto then. Here’s my first draft. I’m considering an A0 size screen printed poster but it’s still a work in progress. Brief explanation of the concept below it.

Chaumont Festival poster

For this brief I have chosen to focus on the generalizations made about different nationalities specifically the French and the English and reminding the viewer that we are all individuals whilst as human beings we are of course the same. The text that I have chosen is self-written and is based on The Treachery of Images by Rene Magritte. In this painting of what is ostensibly a realistic looking pipe, Magritte has written below it “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – This is not a pipe – which appears to be a contradiction. However, it is of course not an actual pipe but a painting of one. Magritte’s work  intended to challenge observers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality and this, along with the French language used for the text has informed my poster design.

My text reads: “je ne suis pas un rosbif” I am not a rosbif in French and: “and I am not a frog” in English. Both ‘rosbif’ (roast beef in English) and ‘frog’ are mildly offensive, almost accepted insults from the French to the English and vice versa. Both have long histories, so long in the case of ‘frog’ that it’s original meaning has been lost. Likewise, do we really know why the French like to call us rosbifs?

For me to say “I am not a rosbif’ one would assume that I would need to be English. I have chose to turn this assumption on its head by writing the text in French. Likewise, to say “and I am not a frog” one would assume that I was a Frenchman – but this is written in English. Who is who and why does it matter? In addition to this conundrum the whole situation could be reversed. Could this be a Frenchman saying that he isn’t a ‘rosbif’? He isn’t of course but neither is the Englishman. He is an Englishman. Again, this also applies to the denial of being a ‘frog’. This never ending conundrum is represented by the two white circles within the poster. They overlap in the form of a Venn diagram. One circle represents France, the other England. They are individual in nationality but intersect as human beings.

The typefaces I have chosen for each line of text also enforce these ideas of generalisation. The French text is written in the style of ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Magritte was, of course Belgian but the language he uses is French. My text is both a play on his words and written in it’s style. The English text is written using Gill Sans type. I have used this typeface as it is known to represent ‘Britishness’ because of it’s use by well known institutions like the BBC and Penguin books.


Back to A Clockwork Orange then. Having watched the movie an unhealthy number of times, read the book and spent too long on Rob Ager’s site the theme I have gravitated towards is Kubrick’s use of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Ludwig Van Beethoven

In the novel, Anthony Burgess gives Alex a love of classical music in general, suggesting that culture does not necessarily belong to the wise and good. However, Kubrick, whilst using famous classical music throughout the movie, chooses to focus on Beethoven, particularly his Ninth Symphony and it is used in pivotal moments of the movie.

Death by stereo

The symphony is loaded with historical and cultural importance in Western (and more recently, Eastern) history. Beethoven was one of the few musicians deemed acceptable by the Nazi regime and Hitler believed that he and Beethoven shared the same heroic German spirit. The symphony was even played at his birthday party. Hitler’s birthday party; imagine that. What do you get a man who wants everything?

A Clockwork Orange often features Nazi symbology (and of course Beethoven himself) and my theory is that Kubrick knew precisely why he was using Beethoven’s Ninth – it could be said that the movie is even built around the structure of the Ninth. Not my idea, this is discussed in revelatory detail here: Beethoven’s Ninth: ‘An Ode To Choice’ As Presented in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange by Galia Hanoch-Roe. Beethoven’s intention was to create a piece of music that celebrated his liberal views – in a time when this was extremely dangerous – and this also chimes with the idea of state control that runs through A Clockwork Orange.

The soundtrack to the movie featured original representations of classical music as well as ‘re-imagined’ electronic versions by Walter (soon to be Wendy) Carlos. Carlos is a legend in electronic music, being one of the first to utilise the monolithic Moog modular synths to their full, mind blowing potential. To me, the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack with it’s mix of timeless classical music and groundbreaking electronic pieces still sounds like the future.

Moog modular

So, my Flash web site will be a nod, or perhaps a bow to the Ninth Symphony and it’s place in history. Visually, I’m thinking of mixing the aesthetic of vintage synths and sheet music.

More on this later…

Before I finish, my research was seriously helped by which features The Kubrick Site. With it’s wealth of articles, interviews on anything and everything Kubrick, the site has been real horrorshow.

Soooo, the next brief for my Graphic Design degree. Play 2 Create: “create a visually dynamic web site that imaginatively interprets the narrative structure, spatial and temporal (time-based) experience and contextual meaning in a cinematic film.” Nice.

This is to be done using Flash and ActionScript. Never done anything with either of those in the past so technically this project may be a ball-ache but conceptually and visually very interesting.

After a little umming and aahing the movie I’ve chosen is going to be the stylish and controversial (at the time) A Clockwork Orange. In the movie of Anthony Burgess‘s novella of the same name Stanley Kubrick visualised a dystopian, near future England  where ultraviolent gangs roamed the streets high on Beethoven and milk, looking for their next victim. A little research reveals a dearth of info on Kubrick and the movie but here’s what I like about it:

A Clockwork Orange

The ‘Kubrick stare’. As performed by Malcolm McDowell here, Jack Nicholson in The Shining below and Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket below that. Face centre of the screen, head slightly tilted down, eyes looking up and they’re looking at YOU.

The Shining

Full Metal Jacket

Which brings me neatly to the centring of many scenes in Kubrick’s movies. The attention to detail and dramatic effect is amazing. As seen above and these lovely set ups in A Clockwork Orange:

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange

Finally, the architecture in A Clockwork Orange really does it for me. In an era when modernist, brutalist projects and social housing developments were yet to fall from grace, these concrete beauties/monstrosities are a perfect backdrop. First is the Brunel University in Uxbridge AKA the Ludoviko Medical Centre followed by Southmere Lake on the Thamesmead Estate (between Greenwich and Bexley). Finally, Southmere as it is now.

Brunel University



There’s a great video here where Simon Baumann visits the locations in the movie while the narrator reads from Kubrick’s script notes. Interesting stuff.

More on all this later…

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


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).


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.


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.


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


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