Sm[art]: Miranda July brings the background to foreground

Miranda July starts her recent Vice photo spread with the following note:

Dear Julie,
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.
Until then,


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?


by Briar Levit
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5 Comments Have Been Posted

I think July is clearly

I think July is clearly doing something different from Sherman here. It's a different idea she's exploring. Brilliant? I don't know enough about art to say that, but I find it interesting that people are criticizing her for being derivative of Sherman's work. To me, that says that the criticism is coming from people who think, "Oh, another woman doing film-related photography with costumes," and who aren't paying attention to the message of what the piece(s) is/are about. It's like writing off women's art as all the same instead of actually paying attention to it.

on-purpose similar??

the similarity to Sherman's work is really striking. They're not just both photographs done by women about film with costumes. They are both photos of the artist placing themselves in recreations of classic film stills.

The message is different. but is july in conversation with sherman? Because she should be. Cindy Sherman is really well known to most feminists/artists, and so when i look at these photos i'm trying to figure out if july is making commentary on sherman's art or.... i don't know. it's not clear.

i think july's message would be more straightforward if she wasn't using sherman's exact style!


My enjoyment of these photos is amplified by being able to reference Cindy Shermen's work, so I don't think it's a question of either being derivative or being brilliant.

MJ's photos might recall CS's work (with or without intention), but by directly contrasting the photos that centralize the extras with the original stills focused on Hollywood stars*, the outsider is brought to forefront, their stories become the focus of attention, and MJ adds a brand new element.

I do prefer CS's work, which is more enigmatic to me, but I think MJ's work here is different and interesting, even with conceptual parallals. Creativity doesn't take place in a vaccum, and I hope MJ would embrace the comparison of these stills with CS's work.

* or "stars," in the case of one photo.

I don't quite get the

I don't quite get the comparison to Cindy Sherman's work either. Some of the commenters on Vice and this post here make it seem that Sherman's photographs are re-creations of stills from actual movies. They're not! She created and photographed the characters and scenes herself; she wasn't putting on costumes to re-create existing images.
July's work seems to be very different thematically, and even more different aesthetically.

Absolutely yes, stole the

Absolutely yes, stole the words out of my mouth! Sherman's work is interesting for the ambiguity of the images and the mystery they evoke, and understanding that her images have no appropriated source material are key to their readings. The fact that so many people believe that her Film Stills reference a pre-existing film call attention to how effective Hollywood's stereotyping of women in film has been, something that an audience has widely internalized and come to expect as being true about female characters. The only thing she is appropriated are these widespread notions of female characters.

July, in comparison, lays relatively flat. Interesting concept, maybe, but my initial reaction is that she sure likes to make a big arty deal about being cute and charming.

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