Miranda July starts her recent Vice photo spread with the following note:
Do you ever feel like an extra in your own life? It seems like I’m forever stuck in the background, watching other people say and do all the things I feel inside. One day I’m gonna surprise everyone with my talents. They will be laughing and crying and texting me so often that I will be annoyed.
What follows are photos of of various classic movie stills (Kramer vs. Kramer, The Godfather, Grease etc.) and accompanying images of July dressed as one of the extras in the scene. The costumes, make-up and poses are meticulous and the images are striking. Her perfect recreation of the character popping off a pale grey background are impressive. I find myself checking out all the details. I compare the original still to her image—scrolling back and forth repeatedly to verify the facsimile she’s created. But in the end, I still ended up asking the question ‘why’? once I was done looking. What’s the point? Is this just a chance for her to play dress up? To flex some ironic costume muscles? What is she saying here?
I’d like to interject here by saying that I have no problem with art for art’s sake—making beautiful images to enjoy without forced concepts is often refreshing. But when you create a convoluted system for image-making like the one July was working within, as a viewer, I expect—or hope—that there’s something behind it beyond just style or self indulgence.
Based on the comments on the Vice blog and others that show the images, it’s clear that many people are blown away by the work of July. But a few call foul saying that her work is redundant—done already by photographer Cindy Sherman in the late 70s with her Untitled Film Stills project. Sherman recreated stills from films, mostly in grainy black and white, placing herself in the image and creating an alternative to the existing original. Says the MoMA website:
In the Untitled Film Stills there are no Cleopatras, no ladies on trains, no women of a certain age. There are, of course, no men. The sixty-nine solitary heroines map a particular constellation of fictional femininity that took hold in postwar America—the period of Sherman’s youth, and the ground-zero of our contemporary mythology. In finding a form for her own sensibility, Sherman touched a sensitive nerve in the culture at large.
Although most of the characters are invented, we sense right away that we already know them. That twinge of instant recognition is what makes the series tick, and it arises from Cindy Sherman’s uncanny poise. There is no wink at the viewer, no open irony, no camp. As Warhol said, “She’s good enough to be a real actress.”
So while July’s series differs in various ways from Sherman’s, does it differ enough? Does it say more? What do you think?