The Sad Sex Object: Cindy Sherman’s Photographic Response to the “Playboy” Centrefold

Recently I wrote about Collection Sandretto Re Rebaudengo: Viral Research at White Chapel Gallery (here) and the artistic weight of works by photographer Cindy Sherman over some shallower pieces. Sherman has since been playing on my mind and so I feel like a deeper look at her centrefold works would be good for me and, by proxy, my readers.

The Sad Sex Object: Cindy Sherman’s Photographic Response to the Playboy Centrefold

New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard is widely credited with saying ‘the best way to criticize a movie is to make a movie of your own’ – an approach that can easily be placed onto the work of renowned feminist photographer Cindy Sherman. By looking towards popular culture and accepted ways of viewing, Sherman comments on visual conventions by appropriating constructs and subverting tone to create a responsive critique. Sherman’s 1981 Centrefold Series, commissioned by ArtForum magazine, exemplifies this critical theory by playing on the tropes of the traditional Playboy centrefold; taking Sherman’s Untitled #91, from this series, and placing it against the classic centrefold image of Lisa Baker, Playmate of the Month November 1966, the deft nature of Sherman’s photography is exposed and she illuminates the issues at play in the world of the erotic magazine.

G04A07Untitled-91_1981_large-950x475

Untitled #91, 1981, Cindy Sherman

1966-lisa-baker-foto-di-melba-figge-per-playboy-novembre-1966-original

Lisa Baker, Nov. 1966, William V. (Bill) FIgge for Playboy

Initially there are similarities to be made between Lisa Baker’s image, taken by longstanding Playboy photographer William V. (Bill) Figges, and Untitled #91 by Sherman; they denote similar things through a shared investment in the conventions of the centrefold. Both images were taken initially to cross two pages within a magazine using a stereoscope format, and both highlight an interest in the female form through depicting full body shots of young women sprawled out on the floor. Although the word centrefold itself is a term purely for the centre spread in any magazine it has an added meaning as a large printed image of ‘a nude model’[1], it is a cultural shorthand, if you will, for printed soft-core pornography – making the artistic conventions of the centrefold quite simple, women posed sexually. By choosing the term centrefold for her work, Sherman indicates her stance against the sexualised objectification of women as her photographs play off audience assumptions and the expectations of those images. Sherman herself highlights this in an article for Tate etc.: ‘In content I wanted a man opening up the magazine suddenly look at it with an expectation of something lascivious and then feel like the violator that they would be… I’m trying to make someone feel bad for having a certain expectation.”[2] Although there are shared aspects within the denotation of the images they do not share a connoted meaning.

To understand these images better it is beneficial to look at the tradition of the centrefold through the conventions of advertising photography. In Photography: Key Concepts David Bate defines the purpose of advertising as ‘[being] asked to fall in love with an object through its image’[3] and this is easily transposed onto the premise of the centrefold image. Lisa Baker is put to us, the viewers, as an object of desire, someone we long to be with purely through her image alone. She is rendered desirable through the soft lighting and muted tones of the photography. Bate then delineates attraction to ‘the signs and codes of the photograph [which] trigger connotative processes… where the status and value of any object ‘in itself’ is established’ (Bate, 125), or rather, value is shown through the props denoted around the central focus of the picture. The shag carpet and fur rug which Baker lies upon, connote the idea of expense or luxury – this woman is not a cheap object to own. Similarly the album sleeves (in the central top) evoke the notion of “cool” and equate her with popular consciousness and “the now”, she becomes desirable through the implied youthfulness of music and popular culture.

On top of this, albums connote a wider sensory reaction to the image – an aural addition to the story of a clichéd “cinematic” sexual encounter. Above her head is a large chunk of imported cheese (again evocative of money and expense) and within the frame are two glasses; the audience is being asked to involve themselves in the image to become an active participant in the scene, through its willingness to involve another. Baker’s look in the camera drawing the audience member in as a second, and importantly acknowledged, member of the scene. John Berger in Ways of Seeing righty describes the success of advertising as ‘the relevance of its fantasies to those of the spectator-buyer’[4]  and the Baker Playmate fantasy being built by Figge’s photograph is clearly one that is designed to appeal to Playboys largely heterosexual male readership.

On the other hand Sherman’s image works as a collapse of these pretences from advertising; it is though she has taken the sexual fantasy of Baker and turned it on its head – the fantasy with added verisimilitude. Sherman strips the centrefold of its luxury by replacing the fur rug with a tired looking lilac towel, the fray under Sherman’s left armpit drawing the eye; the props to indicate your participation are disposed of to reveal the image for what it is, the viewer (removed) looking at a woman in a forced “sexual” pose. Shadows appear across the image (unlike in Figge’s image where Baker is under multiple lights illuminating her face and backside) so Sherman is shown not in a created lustful glow but lit naturally through a window. The hard wood floor looks uninviting; we do not want to imagine ourselves into the Sherman photograph. If the connoted meaning of Baker is one of a luxury sexual encounter Sherman’s is anything but this – the worn nature of the few objects in frame suggest the grime and the violent nature of the sexualised view of women.

Another artistic convention the Playboy centrefold relies upon is that of the nude.  Berger makes a stark definition between being naked and the artistic nude: ‘a naked body has to be seen as an object to become a nude’ (Berger, 54). The tropes of advertising and how we are encouraged to view Baker as on object for our sexual gratification force her naked flesh to transcend into the vision of the nude.  ‘Her body is arranged in the way it is, to display to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality’ (Berger, 55); the nude is made for the viewer and the pose of Baker is without doubt designed for this purpose.  With the entirety of her body in frame, Baker is contorted to show her backside off (placed centrally in the shot, her rear is more important to the fantasy than her face); her thin waist and long legs are also displayed to the camera. Yet the pose is not natural, she strains her head over her left shoulder to look at the camera – this is not a woman relaxing but one holding a constructed erotic pose. Her bent left leg seems at once caressing the other leg with her foot and yet also it is there to prop up her bottom to allow the upper body twist that allows the breasts to emerge in profile. The pose of Baker, nude, is designed to appeal to the male viewer at her comforts expense.

Sherman’s reclining character is also influenced by the notion of the nude as her pose is open and sexual; we look at Sherman’s tilted hips and thin waste with the same erotic expectations as we look at the reclining Baker: the exposed skin as Sherman’s shirt rises up around her midriff certainly contains an implied erotic charge. However Sherman photography is so open about the image having ‘nothing to do with [the character’s] sexuality’ (her blank face, looking away from the camera does not suggest an enjoyment in the process) we cannot impose our own sexual lust onto it. We see only a victim through our sexualized viewing.

The conventions of the erotically posed nude are also heavily aligned with visions of women throughout other media platforms: Laura Mulvey, a feminist film critic, writes of ingrained ways of viewing women in cinema – something that interests Sherman as many of her works focus on reference and play on cinematic tropes. Mulvey’s seminal work Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema defines a specific ‘male gaze [which] projects its phantasy on to the female figure… as women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, their appearance is coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness’[5] which, undoubtedly, is at play within the centrefold image. The sole purpose of Baker’s image is to be looked at, she has no narrative implications of emotional response necessary for characters to function in cinema, she can be seen as an ultimate passive symbol of this to-be-looked-at-ness, turning herself into an object, as Berger puts it, ‘a sight’ (Berger, 47).

Sherman plays off this relationship of woman as ‘the surveyed’ (Berger, 46) through her usurpation of the camera angles popular in centrefold images: as Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’ is not only defined through the suggested heterosexual eroticism in images but also through the power play of camera angles.  Both Untitled #91 and Figge’s photograph are shot from above – the woman on the floor – connoting subservience to the (presumed male) viewer. This places the male viewer in the role of dominator and forces overt sexualisation of the “weaker” woman. This master/servant dichotomy is implicit within Baker’s image – part of the erotic charge of the photograph – however through the stark realism of Sherman’s #91 it becomes an integral component in the saddened tone. #91 focuses on the subjugation of the character present, the violence and violation of the aggressive camera alienating the viewer from the erotic response expected from centrefolds, with the shocking connotation of unconcentual (looking away from the camera Sherman does not invite you to look at her) sexualisation and rape through the camera.

Mulvey’s definition of the male-gaze and scophophilia is directly related to objectification of women and one of the many issues of viewing this way is the idea of commerce and possession that seemingly naturally comes from the notion of an object. Susan Sontag believes that ‘to photograph people is to violate them… it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed’[6]; you, the photographer, choose the angle, the pose, the lighting, the framing, and therefore remove the person’s character to create your chosen image of them – you take ownership of their whole for your own means. Baker’s image is therefore an image of her chosen by the photographer, Figge, and he takes possession of her as a mere prop for his final image. He owns her appearance through his work.

This problem of possession of Baker’s image, and her femininity through it, is further complicated by the wide distribution of her nude body through Playboy magazine. Berger wrote, of oil painting, ‘If you buy a painting you also buy the look of the thing it represents… the analogy between possessing and the way of seeing’ (Berger, 83). Therefore, to relate this to the erotic magazine, the viewing public pay $6.99 to possess the image of Baker (and multiple others); Baker’s image is thus a commodity that can be owned. This woman is exchangeable amongst the public through the wide spread of her image. On the other hand, through being her own photographer and subject, Sherman is in full control of her portrayal and our ownership of the image: she owns her own appearance and our reaction to it. Similarly, through the distancing effect of her photography, we do not feel as though we can pleasantly possess the image of Sherman as we do Baker. By evoking empathy for another, over personal gratification, Sherman’s character becomes a person whereas Baker is an object of pleasure.

Yet this is not to cast aspersions onto the woman Lisa Baker, as, for example, her eye contact engagement with the camera may not necessarily be read as submissive to the viewer’s sexual whims; indeed, a woman can be in control of her sexuality and reactions to it. John Berger puts it as, ‘a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her’ (Berger, 46); although this statement is in intended as negative (if a woman acts sexually permissive then she will be treated as a purely sexual object) the controlling presence within his argument is the woman herself – she has decided her actions and as such creates the male response. The period of the mid-to-late 1960s in which the photograph was taken, is synonymous with sexual liberation and Baker can be seen as knowingly participating in this sexual vivaciousness and enjoyment. The question is ultimately who is in control in the creation and viewing of these images and a convincing argument can be made that Baker’s images are a form of participation in her own sexuality. As early as Mina Loy’s Feminist Manifesto, 1914, women have been calling for liberation, and a key part of this argument was the control of the sexual-self. Loy claimed ‘to obtain results you must make sacrifices & the first & the greatest sacrifice you have to make is of your ‘virtue’’[7], a woman’s freedom is dependent on open sexuality rather than the repression the term ‘virtue’ espouses. Baker can therefore be read by some as the antithesis of Sherman’s victimised women.

Sherman’s work is a clear reaction and criticism of the way popular culture objectifies and, in many ways, violates women. By deconstructing the nature of the centrefold she makes an attack on what feminist writer Marylin French calls ‘rape with [male] eyes’[8]. However, to best understand Sherman’s argument, I wish to close as John Berger opens his essay on the female in art (from Ways of Seeing) with Felix Trutat’s Reclining Bacchante, 1824 – 1848. As the young Bacchante looks out of the canvas, the viewer, through our looking at her, becomes associated with the dark leering face in the top right – an explicit representation of the age-old male gaze. Sherman’s work, and that of many feminist artists, does not exist in a bubble of contemporary culture but rather as part of a long line of critical exploration into how woman is viewed. As with Lisa Baker the Bacchante knows to pose and to display herself erotically, but, just as with Sherman’s characters, she is a victim of the male viewer who makes her act so.

 

reclining-bacchante-trutat

The Reclining Bacchante, 1824-1848, Felix Trutat, oil on canvas

 

 

 

 Bibliography:

Bate, David, Photography: The Key Concepts, New York, Berg Publishing, 2009

Berger, John Ways of Seeing, London, Penguin Publishing, 1972

Loy, Mina  Feminist Manifesto, 1914, in 100 Artist’s Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev, New York: Penguin Classics, 2011

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999

Oxford English Dictionary Online: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/29696?redirectedFrom=centrefold#eid9945845 visited on 01/01/2013

 Rogers, Dana, Photographer Cindy Sherman at The Tate Modern http://gws.as.uky.edu/blogs/dlro223/photographer-cindy-sherman-tate-modern visited on 01/01/2013

Sontag, Susan On Photography, New York, Farrah Straus & Giroux Publishing, 1972: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:z1c1mWph1oQJ:visualstudies.buffalo.edu/resources/classnotes/art314/sontag.pdf+sontag+on+photography+pdf&hl=en&gl=uk&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjgtxv1GvJB3iiq16Wn1QuhPd5OCmoODjSUxyMD8pi3lfAQ05D_U6J47LFjG2blyFDFRVGKmVeyqA24iml1uWut4qs5H4I5vmS01MKKI0JLyy_3FPVAaI2KtnuuTXh8zU54PklX&sig=AHIEtbSQRy3nqllVDmdPu1byQJOI2pielw visited on 30/12/2012

The Telegraph Online,  Marylin French : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/books-obituaries/5273331/Marilyn-French.html visited on 01/01/2013

Image List:

The Reclining Bacchante, 1824-1848, Felix Trutat, oil on canvas

Untitled #91, 1981, Cindy Sherman

Lisa Baker, Nov. 1966, William V. (Bill) FIgge for Playboy


[3] David Bate, Photography: The Key Concepts, New York, Berg Publishing, 2009, Page 125

[4] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, London, Penguin Publishing, 1972, Page 146

[5] Laura Mulvey. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, Page 837

[7] Mina Loy, Feminist Manifesto, 1914, in 100 Artist’s Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev, New York: Penguin Classics, 2011 Page 94

[8] From The Woman’s Room, 1977, quoted by The Telegraph Online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/books-obituaries/5273331/Marilyn-French.html 01/01/2013

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Speaking On Art – Sep 2013 » THE PAINTER'S TONGUE

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