Without ever having to suffer standing on the side of a long, lonely road hoping for a ride to come along, one can get a sense of the experience with just a look at Cindy Sherman’s photograph, Untitled Film Still # 48. The photograph, taken in 1979, shows a female hitchhiker waiting for a ride alongside a two-lane highway in the dim light of dusk.
Sherman is an accomplished photographer. When she uses her camera to speak, people who follow photography as an art form listen. As a distinguished figure in her field, she makes a credible appeal to ethos simply by putting her name on her work. Any viewer aware of her expertise is compelled to ponder the photo and consider what Sherman meant the public to see.
Sherman used logic and surely chose the composition of the image carefully. She selected a certain level of darkness to help convey her message. The clouds are indistinct and the shadows are beginning to blend with the objects around them; it is clearly evening. Typically, subjects face photographers to add emotion or to help interpret emotions that will show in the face of the subject. However, Sherman turned the subject around to show she is waiting patiently for a car but worry is beginning to overcome her patience in she darkness creeps across the landscape. Turning the subject away from the lens also took away her identity.
She could be anyone, including the person viewing the photograph. She gave her a suitcase to show that she is waiting for a ride to go somewhere other than where she is. Sometimes, absence of information is as important as the information provided. Is she running away? Chasing her dreams? Has she had car trouble? Or has she been abandoned there? Leaving all of these possibilities open to interpretation gives Sherman a more opportunity to connect with more viewers’ experiences. Her use of the facts of light, time, position, and prop all work together to tell the view that the woman is a hitchhiker.
The photo makes an emotional appeal to anyone who views it. The delivery is passionate. The subject’s hand placed at the back shows how determined she is to leave because it signifies how patient she is when it comes to waiting for a vehicle right where she stands instead of walking along her way. As it is nearly night-time and darkness is so dominant in the image, anyone would feel worried. The darkness of the curve a few meters in front of her shows that there seems to be no vehicles passing by, and hope is running out.
The fact that she is alone in the image also worries the viewer, especially since she is a lady, increasing the possibility something bad will happen to her. Also, because there were no houses in the image, no lights, no other signs of life except for the trees and maybe unseen animals, it brings about emotions on a continuum of concern from mild apprehension to extreme fear in anyone who will carefully scrutinize the image. The photograph gives a sense of foreboding at first that grows into panic as the view can almost see the darkness growing.
For a work of art to be considered a portrait, the artist must have intent to portray a specific, actual person. This can be communicated through such techniques as naming a specific person in the title of the work or creating an image in which the physical likeness leads to an emotional individuality unique to a specific person. While these criteria are not the only ways of connoting a portrait, they are just two examples of how Sherman carefully communicates to the viewer that these works are not meant to depict Cindy Sherman the person.
By titling each of the photographs “Untitled,” as well as numbering them, Sherman depersonalizes the images. Sherman’s creativity and power as a photographer is on full display with Untitled Film Still # 48. She put in putting so much heart into the photo that the viewer cannot help but react. For the viewer in me, the most memorable feature is the dominance of darkness combined with notable lack of other human life. Safety is a top priority for me as it is with many people. It horrifies me to see an individual waiting all alone in the dark, unsure of what is going to happen next.
Sherman, Cindy. Untitled Film Still # 48. 1978. 21 July 2009. < http://www.masters-of-photography.com/S/sherman/sherman_48.html >
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