While Cindy Sherman (1954 – ) first gained fame in the late 1970s with her series of Untitled Film Stills, “black and white photographs…[that] mimicked the characters and settings of fictional 1950s and 60s Hollywood B-movies,” her work in the 1980s consisted of color photographs that “made reference to fashion photography, television, horror movies and pornography” (Peyton-Jones). Sherman’s Untitled #92 (1981) is a product of the latter stage of Sherman’s oeuvre when the postmodernist photographer “began working in color and in near-lifesize dimensions” (Arnason). Sherman’s photographs are largely of herself yet her images are not strictly self-portraits; rather, Sherman “adopt[s] a variety of personas and disguises, which explore and expose well-defined images and stereotypes of women in Western society across the ages” (Arnason).
Untitled #92 is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and was on view as part of the Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography exhibition (May 7, 2010 – April 4, 2011); it is the only photograph of Sherman’s presently on view at MoMA, which houses the photographer’s entire Untitled Film Stills series. A chromogenic color print, Untitled #92 measures 24 x 47 15/16” (61 x 121.9 cm) and is thus apropos of the “near-lifesize dimensions” H.H. Arnason notes.
The subject of the photograph is a young woman – Sherman – dressed in a plaid skirt and a white collared shirt rolled up to her elbows, an outfit that evokes the idea of a girl in a Catholic School uniform, a feminine cultural stereotype with which Sherman is actively playing. The figure is on her knees on a green-blue wooden plank floor; her hands are also on the floor in front of her body, which is angled in an almost reversed “S” shape in which her head is the top of the “S,” her back and buttocks and length of it, and her lap and hands, the bottom. Her hands are posed as if she is about to rise up and take action. Triangular planes of shadow surround the figure on both sides, further illuminating the pallid young woman with striking sea-blue eyes. The woman’s ear-length blonde hair is wet, suggesting physical activity that would induce sweat. Because she is a fully clothed figure who is not sexually explicit (her breasts are hidden from view and her upper body is hunched over her pelvis), sexual intercourse can be ruled out as the mentioned physical activity.
More likely, she has been running from someone or something. The blue overtones of the print and the look of fear directed upwards and to the right of the frame reinforce this idea that the heroine is being chased. Furthermore, much of Sherman’s work in the 1980s was based on horror movies, as previously noted, and many of her images have been described as Hitchcockian; in fact, Arnason describes the figure in Sherman’s Untitled #96 as “a Hitchcock heroine,…vulnerable to something outside the photographic frame” (Arnason).
Untitled #92 does not look like a posed portrait; rather, like many of Sherman’s photographs, it looks like a still frame from a reel of film: the heroine is ready to jump to action. Even though she is on her hands and knees, her position is not one of vulnerability but of “animality, [her] body clenched in a kind of subhuman fixation” (Krauss). Her fingernails, unpainted, are overgrown and claw or talon-like, reinforcing this idea of the subject as animalistic in nature. Furthermore, her parted lips, wide eyes, and lighted face, hardly obscured by shadow, are reminiscent of a deer in headlights.
In Untitled #92, Sherman addresses a stereotypical fantasy of the male gaze (i.e., the Catholic school girl) and places her in a context devoid of sexual content. The young woman’s sex organs are covered; the only skin visible is that of her face, arms, and hands. While Sherman’s photographs are generally considered to be self-portraits because, technically, it is the artist who occupies the picture plane; however, Untitled #92 does not “answer key questions about who the subject is, which is the basis of self-portraiture” (Steiner).