Cindy Sherman's Film Stills: An Evaluation Nearly 30 Years Later

by Brian Appel

 

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"She's good enough to be a real actress."
--Andy Warhol, n.d.

"Cindy Sherman's Film Stills are the best of my generation."
--Richard Prince, May 5, 2007 email

Almost 30 years after its completion, Cindy Sherman's re-staging of the roles of women as depicted by the latently misogynistic mass media in her 1977 to 1980 serial masterpiece, the Untitled (Film Stills), still sits at the top of the heap in post-war art photography. Achingly romantic, but with a deep kind of shrewdness, her 70 chameleon-like performances completed in the understated but richly semiotic medium of the 8x10-inch gelatin silver print were instrumental in ushering in our current infatuation with the psychopathological structures of the role of photography as a way of representing the 'true image' of our culture.

Picking up from Marcel Duchamp and taking the baton from Andy Warhol's prescient use of the readymade photographic image from everyday life, Sherman re-focused our sensibilities with her noir-cool, totally artificial yet captivatingly authentic performances into the 'new' reality of what constitutes meaning in the age of the mechanical and now fully digitalized universe.

Eli Broad and Charles Saatchi were two of the earliest collectors to recognize that Sherman was at the top of an elite list of artists who were using the camera in a way that had nothing to do with the traditional concerns of documentary or fine-art photographs. Along with Richard Prince, John Baldessari, Jeff Wall, Barbara Kruger, Charles Ray, Mike Kelley, Andreas Gursky and a handful of other A-listers, Sherman was using the camera to focus on the sociological fantasies that had shaped and were still actively shaping America's (and, by extension, the world's) comprehension of female stereotypes as depicted in television, film and advertising. These sociological fantasies have been so thoroughly promulgated and for so long (even before the onset of photography in the 1830s) that no one can tell anymore where their impact began or will end.

Untitled Film Still #50 is a case in point. Hanging on its own wall at the Phillips de Pury & Co.'s fifth floor auction exhibition preview space prior to its May 18th "Part II, Contemporary Art" day sale (the auction house's most interesting side effect lies in the opportunity it offers to reflect upon an artist's work and the continuing role that it plays in shaping narratives of modern contemporary art), one couldn't help but be drawn into the drama created by Sherman's presence in the 8x10-inch black-and-white film still frame.

The Sherman Film Still #50
The Sherman Film Still #50

An attractive 20-something woman is sitting sideways on a luxurious mid-century modernist sectional couch with a tumbler of some beverage in her right hand (probably scotch). She seems to be waiting for someone to return to the exquisitely appointed living room outfitted with a standing wooden African fertility sculpture and what looks to be a Mark Tobey-esq metal statue. One leg tucked under her fitted, black A-line skirt, the other extended at a 45 degree angle from the front of the couch to the floor as counter-weight, Sherman's character is both in repose but also ready to spring up when the absent 'other' returns to the room. She's wearing a matching black v-neck top giving the impression of a self-possessed and thoroughly professional character, but the outfit is trimmed with leopard at the collar and at the cuffs, transforming the meticulously tailored ensemble into something more romantic--a little more adventurous or spirited.

Heightening the theatricality of the shot the protagonist's black hair is shaped like a Spanish bullfighter's hat--the kind worn by the toreadors in the ring--and is highlighted in silhouette because of the camera's position, which is at eye-level if you were standing just behind and to the right of the couch. Her hair is framed inside an illuminated lamp shade that is shaped like a flying saucer. The fact that she's wearing a touch too much rouge and lipstick gives the viewer the distinct impression that the relationship is about to shift from one that is more professional to one that is more romantically and emotionally charged. When you pull in closer to the image you can almost look into the glass that Sherman is resting on her thigh and smell the alcohol.

It is Sherman's naturalistic performance however--her capacity to reveal what is in the heart and mind of the character directly--that cements the image into the post-war canon. The slightly desperate, slightly existential look in her eyes makes her seem frozen in thought and appear to look beyond the frame. This look completely hypnotizes the viewer and makes identification with her character possible.

The thousands of decisions that went into the carefully shaded, intimate acting style, her outfit and styling of the character, and the nostalgic, black-and-white rendering of the richly appointed interior make it every bit as complex as a scene from an early Hitchcock film. The character Cindy plays looks to be in trouble here--she's definitely in over her head. As more than a few female characters in Hitchcock's earlier films, she looks like she could possibly fall prey and become a victim to the never-seen host.

Regardless of the fact that he is invisible in the frame, the unknown 'other' is all powerful and dictating all the events that are about to take place. Something about that intensity of the light from the lamp that causes the protagonist's facial expression to be slightly underexposed and overdeveloped, and hence difficult to read or, as it manifests here under Sherman's deft hand, results in a multiplication of available readings of the performance. The burning white light from the lamp shade acts as a halo of sorts around the protagonist's head placing her in the ultimate role of sacrificial lamb-- Christ-like in a way that gives the image its mystery, its gravitas and ties it into a much larger, timeless mythology. The bright light also functions as a foreshadowing device--focusing on the fate of the woman as a character in the film still, but also, in a teleological way, on the charismatic quality and symbolism of the artist herself.

The aggressive components of scopophilia (the term Freud used to designate pleasure in looking)--the manifestation of our desire to see and to know--is in fact metaphorically presented by the unseen 'other' in this photograph. Through the physical absence of the person that Cindy's character is waiting for, the viewer is implicated and with this association a reference is made to the media's predominantly male voyeuristic tendencies and its penchant to place women into distinct categories of function, much like any other of the possessions in the apartment. Sherman's intimate, loquacious and exhibitionist performance in Untitled Film Still #50 implies what desire means and where it leads, particularly in this case where Cindy's character is passively awaiting the return of the absent 'other'.

Sherman, however, is both the director of the scene and star, and so is in fact both voyeur and exhibitionist, and is therefore having herself looked at (making oneself seen/feminine) as well as aggressively dictating the events as they are about to unfold (male). By pulling off such a coup, Sherman is in reality shifting our attention to the politics of representation, particularly as a response to a desiring male gaze pointing to and presenting clues toward deciphering the undercurrents of feminine cliché images, especially as to how it is defined through the representation of women in film.

Fifteen years before the Museum of Modern Art in New York ordered up its much publicized complete 'printed-later' artist proof version of the Film Stills in 1995 (outside of Sherman's original edition of ten, eight by ten-inch prints), the images were aiding the penetration of photography through the previously iron-clad barrier between the medium and the "higher" forms of art activity--painting and sculpture. Trading at today's robust prices, the 700 'original' 8x10-inch gelatin silver prints are worth approximately $52 million (averaged out at $75,000 a pop). We are not including the additional 210 30x40-inch prints (edition of three) which have been selling from $72,000-$385,600 since 2003, or the intermediary 16x20-inch size that Sherman's dealers at Metro Pictures put a stop to when they signed her up back in 1980.

I contacted Sherman's dealer of 27 years to confirm edition sizes for the Film Stills and to see if there were any possibility of the artist going back to mine more prints from those original negatives.

In her email back to me, Helene Winer, Metro Pictures Gallery, said, "The Film Stills are in fixed editions, no additional prints are made from her negatives in any size or shape. She has reprinted some early prints that faired poorly, and then the original print is destroyed. Not all of the Film Stills were printed in the year they were shot, but as the editions were sold. The AP set owned by the Modern (MoMA) were printed, for the first time, the year they bought them, with Cindy carefully checking the quality and cropping. As you can imagine, Cindy has many, many negatives she did not use over the years. She has at times used images for benefit prints and gifts and gifts to friends that are not part of the Film Stills series, but, a more casual, sometimes light-hearted selection."

All told, this series alone would trade at approximately $96 million at present prices if they were all somehow made available.

Since the early 1980s Sherman has been phenomenally influential to younger artists world-wide and has garnered near perfect critical attention. But being a woman artist and using the medium of photography were initially seen as two strikes against her in the fine art marketplace--the Film Stills after all, were purportedly sold for $50 each in 1980. But since the twin towers collapse, her work has become the cat's meow with the new generation of deep-pocketed collectors, who recognize that the world we live in as depicted in photographs is a world of fantasy.

Originally attacked because of what was interpreted as her excessive concern with appearance, costume and make-up (her work was dismissed as empty and kitschy) the Film Stills are now applauded as an early deconstruction of the feminine mystique as depicted in the mass media, and a meditation on voyeurism and movie-star narcissism. The series have had a phenomenal impact on this segment of the market, which is savvy to how photographs shape the narratives of modern contemporary existence.

The fact that Sherman is an artist who sees the world through the gaze of a woman's eyes and through the lens of the camera is now an advantage--an advantage that allows a small but influential group of collectors an opportunity to share her novelistic notions of character and place. As time goes by, these early images of post-feminist, post-modernist thought as illustrated through the transparency of the actual face of the artist will only look better, resonate deeper and command prices that will bring Sherman's work into parity with the very top contemporary masters using paint and sculpture.

On the evening of May 16th, a color image from her follow-up series to the Film Stills, referred to as the Centerfolds sold at Christie's for $2.11 million (from an edition of ten).


Cindy Sherman's "UNTITLED FILM STILLS", (1977-1980)
[New York auction activity from Fall 2003-Spring 2007]
*8x10-in./ **16x20-in. / ***30x40-in.

Untitled Film Still #1, (1977)
*$32,000 / Sotheby's, Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $20,000-$30,000 / Lot #341 / May 13, 2004
*$66,000 / Sotheby's, Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $30,000-$40,000 / Lot #468 / Nov. 15, 2006

Untitled Film Still #5, (1977)
*$108,000 / Sotheby's, Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $60,000-$80,000 / Lot #421 / May 16, 2007

Untitled Film Still #6, (1977)
***$385,600 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Contemporary Art (Part 11) Front Cover Image, est.: $150,000-$200,000 / Lot #121 / Nov. 11, 2005

Untitled Film Still #8, (1978)
***$108,000 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Contemporary Art (Part 11), est.: $60,000-$80,000 / Lot #358 / Nov. 17, 2006

Untitled Film Still #9, (1978)
*$39,600 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Veronica's Revenge (Part 2), est.: $20,000-$30,000 / Lot #85 / Nov. 9, 2004

Untitled Film Still #11, (1978)
*$60,000 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $30,000-$40,000 / Lot #525 / Nov. 12, 2003

Untitled Film Still #12, (1978)
***Bought in / Sotheby's, Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $60,000-$80,000 / Lot #526 / Nov. 10, 2004
***$74,400 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $50,000-$70,000 / Lot #481 / Nov. 9, 2005
***$120,000 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $70,000-$90,000 / Lot 417 / Nov. 16, 2006

Untitled Film Still #18, (1978)
**$66,000 / Sotheby's, Photography (Session Two), est.: $30,000-$50,000 / Lot #189 / April 22, 2006

Untitled Film Still #19, (1978)
***$210,000 / Christie's, Selections From The Pierre Huber Collection (Evening) / 30 by 40" / ed. of 3, ('2/3') / est.: $80,000-$120,000 / Feb. 26, 2007

Untitled Film Still #20, (1978)
*$60,000 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Veronica's Revenge (Part 1), est.: $25,000-$35,000 / Lot #46 / Nov. 8, 2004
*132,000 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Photographs--Collection of Alain Dominique Perrin (Afternoon), est.: $30,000-$50,000 / Lot #303 / Apr. 25, 2007

Untitled Film Still #22, (1978)
***$186,000 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $100,000-$150,000 / Lot #413 / Nov. 16, 2006

Untitled Film Still #23, (1978)
***Bought in / Phillips de Pury & Co., Photographs (Part 1), est.: $100,000-$150,000 / Lot #42 / Oct. 17, 2003

Untitled Film Still #26, (1978)
*$36,000 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Photographs (Part 1), est.: $20,000-$30,000 / Lot #30 / Oct. 6, 2005

Untitled Film Still #27B, (1979)
*$57,600 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $30,000-$40,000 / Lot #482 / Nov. 9, 2005

Untitled Film Still #32, (1979)
**$72,500 / Sotheby's, Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $60,000-$80,000 / Lot #340 / May 13, 2004
*$141,600 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Contemporary Art (Part II), est.: $60,000-$80,000 / Lot #357 / Nov. 17, 2006
*$216,000 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est. $80,000-$120,000 / Lot #381 / May 17, 2007

Untitled Film Still #34, (1979)
*$78,000 / Sotheby's, Contemporary Art (Afternoon), had a faded sepia/brown tone, est.: $35,000-$45,000 / Lot #420 / May 16, 2007

Untitled Film Still #43, (1979)
***$83,650 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $90,000-$120,000 / Lot #310 / Nov. 11, 2004

Untitled Film Still #46, (1979)
***$72,000 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $60,000-$80,000 / Lot #455 / May 12, 2005

Untitled Film Still #48, (1979)
**$336,000 / Sotheby's, Contemporary Art (Evening), est.: $200,000-$300,000 / Lot #38 / May 12, 2004

Untitled Film Still #49, (1979)
*$57,600 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Veronica's Revenge (Part 2), est.: $25,000-$35,000 / Lot #87 / Nov. 9, 2004

Untitled Film Still #50, (1979)
*$57,600 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Veronica's Revenge (Part 2), est.: $20,000-$30,000 / Lot #86 / Nov. 9, 2004.
***$156,000 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $120,000-$180,000 / Lot #380 / May 17, 2007
*$216,000 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Contemporary Art (Part II, Afternoon), est.: $60,000-$80,000 / Lot #270 / May 18, 2007

Untitled Film Still #54, (1980)
*Withdrawn / Sotheby's, Contemporary Art (Afternoon) (Front Cover Image, thought to be a publicity image outside of the edition and unnumbered, and was originally the property of Craig Owens, who was a famed critic who died of AIDS), est.: $120,000-$180,000 / Lot #375 / May 11, 2005
*$192,000 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $100,000-$150,000 / Lot #426 / May 12, 2005
*$102,000 (same image that was withdrawn above--now authenticated by Helene Winer from Metro Pictures, N.Y., editioned by her as '1/10', gift to Eric Owens [Craig's brother]) / Sotheby's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $100,000-$150,000 / Lot #440 / May 11, 2006

Untitled Film Still #55, (1980)
*$98,400 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Veronica's Revenge (Part 1), est.: $40,000-$60,000 / Lot #45 / Nov. 8, 2004

Untitled Film Still #57, (1980)
**$60,000 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Contemporary Art from the Collection of Princess Gloria Von Thurn Und Taxis, (Part 1), est.: $40,000-$60,000 / Lot #12 / Nov. 7, 2005
*$86,400 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $40,000-$60,000 / Lot #448 / May 10, 2006

Untitled Film Still #61, (1978)
*$42,000 / Sotheby's, Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $20,000-$30,000 / Lot #455 / Nov. 10, 2004
*$50,400 / Christie's, Photographs (Afternoon), est.: $25,000-$35,000 / Lot #287 / Oct. 18, 2006

Untitled Film Still #63, (1980)
*$72,000 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art (Afternoon), est.: $50,000-$70,000 / Lot #473 / Nov. 9, 2005

Untitled Film Still #65, (1980)
*$36,000 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Veronica's Revenge (Part 2), est.: $20,000-$30,000 / Lot #88 / Nov. 9, 2004
*$84,000 / Phillips de Pury & Co., Contemporary Art (Part 2), est.: $30,000-$40,000 / Lot #359 / Nov. 17, 2006

Untitled Film Still #84, (1978)
*$60,000 / Christie's, Post-War & Contemporary Art Afternoon), est.: $60,000-$80,000 / Lot #414 / Nov. 16, 2006

To recap, 41 images went to New York auction (26--8 x10-in.; 11--30x40-in.; 4--16x20-in.). One was 'withdrawn' due to authenticity issues just prior to the sale (8x10-in.); two were 'bought in' or 'passed', failing to get the agreed-upon seller's minimum (both 30x40-in.); and the other 38 were sold.

Brian Appel is a contributing writer for iphotocentral.com, the E-Photo Newsletter and artcritical.com, focusing on photography and contemporary art. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Photography) from the University of Manitoba's School of Art and a Masters of Arts (Photography and Film Studies) from the University of Iowa. He has been intrigued by the concept of photographer as witness since walking into the first posthumous New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Diane Arbus in 1972.