Sherman’s big artistic break came with the “Untitled Film Stills.” To make the series, the artist served as both photographer and subject, transforming herself with makeup, wigs, and elaborate costumes into figures that recalled the movie stars of an earlier generation: Monica Vitti, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot. These photographs of women by a woman quickly gained traction within the feminist community. In the 1991 essay “A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body,” theorist Laura Mulvey contextualized Sherman’s work within the prevailing feminist modes of thought at the time. When Sherman arrived on the scene, it marked the “end of that era in which the female body had become, if not quite unrepresentable, only representable if refracted through theory,” she wrote. “But rather than sidestepping, Sherman reacts and shifts the agenda. She … recuperates a politics of the body that had, perhaps, been lost or neglected in the twists and turns of ’70s feminism.”
Even at a glance, it is easy to see some of the ways Sherman’s representations of women avoided the proclivities of the day. The heavy pancake makeup, high heels, and bullet bras of the film stills harken back to the ’50s rather than the au naturel look favored in the ’70s. And as such, “it is not just a range of feminine expressions that are shown but the process of the ‘feminine’ as an effect, something acted upon,” wrote Judith Williamson in a widely cited essay about Sherman’s series.