The black-and-white images, which Sherman originally printed in an 8-by-10-inch format, were intended to mimic the glossy publicity photographs shot on film sets and then used to promote movies. “I wanted them to seem cheap and trashy, something you’d find in a novelty store and buy for a quarter,” she said in a 2000 New Yorker profile
. “I didn’t want them to look like art.” They were priced accordingly, at $50 per photograph. In 2014, a set of 21 “Untitled Film Stills” sold at Christie’s for $6.7 million—or more than $320,000 per photo—smashing the auction record for Sherman’s work.
Each image in the series features Sherman donning the costume, accessories, and portentous pose of a different archetypal female character in a familiar yet impossible-to-place Hollywood film of the 1950s or ’60s. In some, like Untitled Film Still #54 (1980), she’s a classic Hitchcock blonde in the vein of Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak; in another, such as Untitled Film Still #3 (1977), she channels a more mod-ish vibe à la Brigitte Bardot. Sherman makes an impressive chameleon throughout the series, both in terms of her looks and costumes and in the range of emotions and scenarios she manages to evoke.
The photos challenge us to dream up what might be happening in the imagined film from which they’re taken, but there is no correct answer. Even in the most melodramatic examples, like Untitled Film Still #30 (1979), where she appears in close-up, tearful and puffy-eyed, the image’s meaning remains open to interpretation. The longer I looked at the series during that first encounter in 2006, the clearer it became that what was really coming into focus were the biases and tensions of my own way of seeing. The images are precision-engineered to implicate the viewer in acts of voyeurism and even violence.