By Serafina Lee
I recently visited Budapest and took some photos inspired by one of my favourite photographers, Cindy Sherman. I took all the photos on my Canon 700D, but edited them afterwards to try and replicate Sherman’s 70s black and white film photo aesthetic.
When life deals you a haunted Airbnb, turn it into a photoshoot location. Bearing in mind the condom wrapper behind the bed and the Tommy Hilfiger pants in a drawer, the generous description of the apartment would be ‘eclectic’. I suppose that’s what you get when paying £9 a night. It even came with a selection of vintage photos of various children and an 80s TV. It was oddly nostalgic but also a little bit horrifying, like staying the night in a museum. On the plus side, its strangeness was intriguing and therefore made for good photos.
I was instantly reminded of one of my favourite photography collections, Cindy Sherman’s seminal Untitled Film Stills, which is a timeless testimony to the storytelling power of a single image. Taken in the 70s, the photos are shot on black and white film and ‘resemble publicity pictures made on movie sets’. Sherman creates these wonderful snapshots of characters that insinuate a wider narrative, photographing herself in varying costumes and settings. Some are bluntly emotional and violent; some are more whimsical.
Sherman said herself that the photos were about ‘understanding women’ and even the level of artifice and staging questions the role of performance as an inherent part of women’s experience. Part of the intrigue of the photographs is that the characters are never limited to Hollywood archetypes, instead, Sherman implies a possible disjunction about ‘what their clothes are communicating’ and their inward expression. For instance, in Untitled Film Still #28 (1979), a woman with curled hair stands outside a run-down apartment ‘508’ in a creased long shirt or nightdress which she holds together at her hips. She stares across the frame as if expecting something to happen or someone to appear. She is barefoot, dishevelled. Sherman threads together a narrative by playing on our tendency to assign symbolic meaning to objects and clothing. We assume she is a victim of sorts, vulnerable and sexually exposed. Yet Sherman challenges this kind of absolutist assumption, as there is also something elusive and indeterminate in her features.
Untitled Film Still #28 (1979)
I in no way expect to emulate such intense character development in my photos. However, I did want to use the quirks of the location, such as the old TV, to evoke the uncanny domesticity of the stills. Sherman shot most of the photos in her apartment, giving them their intimate quality. You almost feel voyeuristic watching over these uninhibited scenes (in one, Sherman stands in a towel and gazes at herself in the mirror). However, despite the images’ lack of self-consciousness, I have to remind myself that they are in fact artfully staged, each one containing intimations of stories, emotions and characters. They’re a bit like an identity jigsaw, as each element of the photograph invites fictionalisation.
Above is Untitled Film Still #21 and to the left is Untitled Film Still #35
Something I thought about when taking my own photographs was the camera angles, a subtle technique of Sherman’s that influences her narrative. Untitled Film Still #35 and the more famous Untitled Film Still #21 are both taken from low angles, drawing our eyes up the composition to focus on the face. I found that more obviously slanted angles tended to lend a more detached and voyeuristic feel to the image, as opposed to the more immersive experience of eye-level shots. I asked my friend Izzy to look directly into the camera lens in a couple of my shots and I think she comes across as more directly uncompromising in those images than in her profile shots.
Robert Longo (an artist who worked closely with Sherman and even took some of the stills) encapsulates her work best for me. He describes Sherman as first and foremost an artist rather than a photographer, able to ‘create a picture that actually has a soul.’ Untitled Film Stills are timeless because they are so convincing and emotionally direct. I completely believe each scenario and will always be mesmerised by the stories they lace together.
Untitled Film Stills by Cindy Sherman courtesy of MoMA