Related themes

Sets, Stories, and Situations

Throughout photography’s history, photographers have staged images to evoke literature, films, real events, and, sometimes, the artifice of the medium itself.

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)

Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills is a suite of 70 black-and-white photographs made over the course of three years in which the artist posed in the guises of various generic female film characters, among them, ingénue, working girl, vamp, and lonely housewife. Staged to resemble scenes from 1950s and 60s Hollywood, film noir, B movies, and European art-house films, the printed images mimic in format, scale, and quality the often-staged “stills” used to promote films. By photographing herself in such roles, Sherman inserts herself into a dialogue about stereotypical portrayals of women.

For Sherman, ambiguity is important. She did not aim to recreate specific or immediately recognizable scenes, and instead kept the settings, body language, and facial expressions of her characters indefinite and open to interpretation. As she has explained, “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 In works like Untitled Film Still #21, Sherman emphasized the uncertainty of the narrative by staging a scene “in-between the action.”2

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

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

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

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

Standardized and oversimplified assumptions about specific social groups.

A mechanical device for controlling the aperture, or opening, in a camera through which light passes to the film or plate. By opening and closing for different amounts of time, the shutter determines the length of the photographic exposure.

The context or environment in which a situation occurs.

A representation of oneself made by oneself.

The ratio between the size of an object and its model or representation, as in the scale of a map to the actual geography it represents.

The way a figure is positioned.

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

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.

Many Guises, Many Helpers: The Making of Untitled Film Stills
Sherman staged and shot many of the interior scenes from this series in her apartment, while she directed her friends to photograph her in scenes set outdoors, including Untitled Film Still #21. Whether she was the one to release the camera’s shutter or not, she is considered the author of the photographs. However, the images in Untitled Film Stills are not considered self-portraits.

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.