Related themes

Sets, Stories, and Situations

Throughout the history of the medium, photographers have staged images to evoke or reference literature, films, or real events.

Untitled Film Still #21

Cindy Sherman
(American, born 1954)

1978. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 x 9 1/2" (19.1 x 24.1 cm)

Throughout her career Cindy Sherman has examined the construction of identity by playing (and subtly commenting on) all of the roles in the production of her photographssubject, photographer, stylist, makeup artist, etc. In Untitled Film Stills, a series of 70 photographs taken over a three-year period, Sherman explores clichéd female roles, including career girl, bombshell, and vamp, among others. The images of these alter egos build upon cinematic conventions of dress, staging, and scenery from 1950s and 1960s Hollywood, film noir, B movies, and European art-house films. Sherman staged and shot many of the interior scenes, such as Untitled Film Still #3, in her apartment. Under her direction, friends photographed her in outdoor scenes such as Untitled Film Still #21.

Sherman does not try to recreate specific scenes, stills, or shots, instead  allowing the body language and facial expressions of her characters to remain ambiguous. She explains, “What I didn’t want were pictures showing strong emotions, which was rare to see; in film stills there’s a lot of overacting because they’re trying to sell the movie.”1 When it came to staging outdoor shots such as Untitled Film Still #21,Sherman emphasized the ambiguity of the narrative by being sure to create scenes “in-between the action.”2

Cindy Sherman, The Untitled Film Stills (New York: The Museum of Modern Art), 8
Ibid, p. 9

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.

The characteristics that determine one's self.

A photograph taken during the production of a film that shows a particular moment or scene. These photographs are often used as advertisements or posters for the film.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

The gestures, facial expression, and postures that convey a person's physical, mental, or emotional state.

Another side of oneself, a second self or identity.

Questions & Activities

  1. Film Stills

    Look and Compare. Compare Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills to those for films by Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni.

    Reflect. What is similar about the images and what is different? Consider framing, cropping, lighting, and subject matter. Make a list of some of your observations.

  2. Imagining a Character

    Imagine. Develop the identity of a character in one of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. What is the person’s name, occupation, and personal history? What happened just before the scene pictured and what happen just after?

    Write. Write a brief one-page description of your character.