Professor Wanley’s lecherous admiration of a portrait of a beautiful woman in a gallery widow is one of the key scenes of film noir. Hypnotic hold broken by a familiar reflection in the glass, Wanley spins around to find the subject of the portrait materialised in the flesh and returning his gaze. A series of entanglements ensues, leading to murder, blackmail, the contemplation of suicide, and even more death.
The Woman in the Window (1944) is a Fritz Lang classic, but its also pure Cindy Sherman. She approaches the film’s plays on representation, spectatorship, and desire for very different ends—often through the subversion of cinematic languages and tropes. Sherman has a few woman-in-the-window moments of her own. In Untitled Film Still #15 (1978), a young blonde sits on a window-still looking onto the street below. The elevated position grants agency to look, but also suggests danger—she is looking out for something or someone. Untitled Film Still #30 (1979) shows a bruised and distressed brunette in extreme close-up, framed by two blacked-out windows. These windows demarcate psychological rather than physical space—the realm where Professor Wanley encounters what in more ways than one transpires to be his dream woman.
Cindy Sherman’s work often sends us on a Wanley-like hunt for specific presences or references in the image that speak to our own desires and need to control the encounter with the art work and the subject it represents. Like the portrait in the film, Sherman’s photographs simultaneously invite and resist these impulses. The Untitled Film Stills acknowledge film as primary source material, and film noir as a particular touchstone. But references to specific films or its stars always remain just out of reach. They are stills for Hollywood films that never existed but we feel like we have seen, featuring characters of Sherman’s invention that we feel we know, all portrayed by her—an actress we think we have seen before.
Sherman’s most recent body of work extends its career-long entanglement with film by evoking old Hollywood stars and star-making machinery. Ageing divas are presented against backgrounds suggestive of old film sets and painted backdrops. The series has spurred those old attempts to identify particular stars (with Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson and Marlene Dietrich often ‘found’), to tie the scenes to particular films, or even, in a new twist, to Sherman’s own Untitled Film Stills as though the two series share a direct ‘before and after’ relationship where once wide-eyed starlets have become world-weary divas.
A New York Times photograph of Sherman in her studio provides an insight into the making of the new work, and its relationship to her source material. She stands in front of a swathe of images pinned to the studio walls. Contemporary fashion and news imagery mix with film stills and publicity photographs of old Hollywood stars—including Joan Crawford, Dorothy Flood, Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow. But individual faces, bodies, films, stories and identities—even the most iconic ones and including the artist herself—meld into a galaxy of images, types and mythologies. This is the cultural firmament Sherman steps in and out of when making her fictions. The photograph shows the type of imagery that Sherman draws on in the making of her work, but it equally reveals the futility of hunting out direct sources for it—as though she is an impersonator or a portrait maker. Sherman’s relationship with her sources is labyrinthine and always filtered through a deeper interest in the powers of photography, art, and film as part of the image-making machine that produces and reinforces all identities.
Sherman describes the subjects of her new photographs as ‘relics of what was once the new platform of film’, creations of the Hollywood studio system. Joan Bennett, the actress who plays ‘the woman in window’, is never identified as a potential presence in Sherman’s new Old Hollywood photographs, nor is she in one of those source images tacked to Sherman’s studio wall. Yet, she is one of these relics. Born into Hollywood royalty, Joan and her sister Constance moved through the golden age of cinema together. They starting acting in the 1920s, moving with the technology from silent films to talking pictures. Her career arc reveals both the new possibilities for and the limitations faced by women in Hollywood through this period. If we can not directly see Bennett in Sherman’s work, we can perhaps now see something of Sherman in Bennett’s. Her performances are often described as chameleon-like, echoing that applied to Sherman’s later shape-shifting. The following description of Bennett could equally apply to Sherman: ‘no distinct identity ever adhered to her. It wasn’t because she was bland, but because she was complicated and unpredictable, with a deeply buried mystery under her down-to-earth surface, the veneer of the Classic American Woman.’
Bennett’s big break came with that most Sherman of things—a makeover in the form of a black wig worn for the comedy Trade Winds in 1938. Bennett instantly shed her previous blonde-good-girl-next-door image, embodied by playing the child Amy in Little Women (1933)—despite the fact that she was a pregnant 23 year old (this was her second child, she had her first at 16). Ingénue-image cast aside, Bennett would subsequently dye her hair and claim ‘I turned my hair dark and have received much better parts ever since…I liked the idea of escaping from all that bland, blonde innocence.’
The 1940s was a period of real liberation for Bennett. She broke free of earlier typecasting and dependence on the crumbling studio system. With Fritz Lang and her agent Jennings Lang, she formed Diana Productions which operated independently from parent company Universal. According to film historian Steven Rybin, ‘Diana Productions was both a financial and emotional investment for Bennett; not only did she provide one third of the start up funds, she also viewed Diana as a way to maintain control over the new star persona she began to develop in Trade Winds.’
Fritz Lang directed the newly raven-haired, independent Bennett in a string of hit films through the early 1940s, including Man Hunt (1941), Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street (1945). These films turned Bennett into a film noir star, while helping construct the trope of the femme fatale—a constellation of western cultures conflicted view of women. As in noir generally, art played a key role in these films. In two of the three films, Bennett’s characters are painted by male artists, creating a doubling effect where Bennett is turned into the femme fatale in both film and in the art within the films. Bennett’s Scarlet Street character, Kitty ‘Lazy Legs’ March, uses her femme fatale wiles to reverse the conventional artist-model power dynamic. She humiliates painter Christopher Cross by forcing him to paint her toenails, while sneering ‘they’ll be masterpieces’. She even passes off his paintings as her own. A portrait instantly becomes a self-portrait, setting off the type of deflections between self and other that Sherman’s work later constantly plays on. An eminent critic is fooled, conceding ‘I can usually tell when a canvas has been painted by a man or woman…Your work is not only original, it has a masculine force’. Issues around art, authorship and gender float through these films and Sherman’s work. Both use representation against itself, especially taking on the convention of the passive body of the female subject as a site of male desire and power.
Sherman’s acknowledgment that the new work addresses her own ageing through that of her characters provides a fresh impetus to those efforts to read the autobiographical into her work—to find Sherman within the personas she performs. These new doublings of artist and subject and contemporary and historical also relocate the work within broader issues concerning the shifting roles available to older women in patriarchal culture. Bennett’s career arc here serves as a cautionary tale. After embodying the fantasy of the femme fatale through the 1940s, she would increasingly cede staring roles to a new generation of actresses, notably playing suburban mother to Elizabeth Taylor in Father of the Bride (1950),and its sequel Father’s Little Dividend (1951). On becoming a real life grandmother at 39, Bennett received a telegram from Marlene Dietrich—often described as the world’s most glamourous grandmother—thanking her for ‘taking the pressure off’.
A real life Hollywood scandal would effectively end Bennett’s career. Suspecting an affair, her husband/producer Walter Wagner confronted Bennett and agent Jennings Lang, shooting the later in the groin. The Chicago Tribute’s headline ‘Joan Bennett Looks on as Bullets Fly’ indicates how this all could be straight from a noir script. Bennett denied any wrongdoing, but her career—one based on playing dangerous, threatening women—never really survived the accusation of infidelity. Bennett claims to have been blacklisted by Hollywood, saying ‘I might as well have pulled the trigger myself’. She would eventually make a humble return to the screen; to television in camp classic Dark Shadows (1966-1971) and to film, playing Madame Blanc in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). In both cases, she is essentially playing Joan Bennett. She symbolises old Hollywood and a classic movie trope grown older, out of place and still looking for work—echoing the way Sherman’s ageing divas seem to be caught up in the contemplation of their own past.
Cindy Sherman’s collection of source imagery goes well beyond Hollywood publicity stills. These images form part of a much larger collection of found photographs, albums and scrapbooks, predominately purchased from antique markets in New York over the last few decades. Like Sherman’s work and Joan Bennett’s films, these photographs are rooted in mid-to-late twentieth century American culture, history and identity—allowing the three to talk to and across each other.
Her collection includes an album of ‘German Ladies’, a collection of vernacular photographs from the 1920s and 1930s. Taken in Germany but purchased in New York, the album’s existence is presumably the product of the same historical forces that brought Fritz Lang, Weimar cinema and a large émigré population to America in the 1930s. Another album stars American stage and screen actor Charles McLelland. Its pages are full with publicity shots and photographs of McLelland playing a variety of characters from the Steinberg hero to the Shakespearian villain, predominately in amateur theatre productions. Ostensibly a portfolio, the album is really a symbol of unfulfilled ambition and desire. McLelland never landed a significant movie part, playing small and often uncredited roles such as ‘Cop’, ‘Detective’ and ‘Brakeman’—all suggesting that typecasting did not just impact Hollywood actresses. The album has an uncanny resemblance to Sherman’s Headshots series (2000) of failed actresses desperately seeking roles and validation clearly never coming their way. Then there is the ‘Bobbi and Cindi’ album in her collection, a doomed romance that plays out in the streets of New York like so many film noirs before them.
The most interesting connections are found in Sherman’s collection of photographs made by and for visitors to Casa Susanna, a resort for cross-dressing men that operated out of Hunter in upstate New York, for a decade from the late 1950s. Casa Susanna’s visitors were able to release ‘the girl within’— a term coined by owner-operator Susanna Valenti in one of her regular columns for Virginia Prince’s Transvestia magazine. Most of the photographs show everyday life at the resort as these men go about being women. The very ordinariness of the photographs is itself extraordinary and political. Banality of subject matter works with the snapshot aesthetic to insist on the truth of these scenes and the existence of these subjects as women. The photographs pass as conventional family or holiday snaps just as its subjects strive to pass as female.
One image to come out of Casa Susanna makes an elaborate joke about the ubiquity and importance of photography to the transformations that took place there. Four women play paparazzi, clamouring over each other to get the perfect shot of the glamorous Lily, who points a camera back at them. The real photographer stands outside the scene, capturing all five subjects and all five cameras—a position betrayed by an uncharacteristically blonde-wigged Susanna looking directly at the camera.
The image hams up the importance of photography to Casa Susanna, and its ability to assist the cross-dressers desire to test and confirm identity. Katherine Cummings, an Australian libarian who visited the retreat while studying in Canada in the eary 1960s, recalls the photographs providing ‘photographic reassurance—a visual arbiter of their femininity’. The few prints scattered on a table beside Lily in the photograph serve as a reminder of the importance of the photographic object alongside or parallel to the performances to camera they capture. The act of being photographed enfemme and then taking these photographs back into the real world was a confirmation of both personal and collective identity, of being one’s female self and also being part of a community. Some photographs in the collection came the other way. Cummings sent a photograph of herself to Susanna to announce her impending arrival and to seek out contacts in the scene.
Bennett’s films, Sherman’s photographs, and the Casa Susanna collection are linked through the shared performance of femininity to camera, and the challenging of gender roles through representation. Bennett’s femme fatales are stripped from the domestic realm and the family sphere that traditionally define notions of womanhood. The film noir world she commands is one of loveless and sexless marriages, where children are rarely seen or heard. Professor Wanley’s children appear only as ghostly reminders of a dull life stuck in framed photographs sitting on a table—the type of images celebrating the traditional family unit evident in many of Sherman’s other found albums. One of these scrapbooks is crammed with hundreds of collaged images of mothers and babies in what appears to be an attempt to will the family into being.
These challenges to gender roles make the femme fatale such a ripe trope for Sherman, and such a problematic subject for feminism. She is independent and empowered, yet ultimately still alluring to, controlled by, and often punished for her transgressions by the patriarchal culture she supposedly challenges. The femme fatale is as much a creation of the male anxieties of the period as its possibilities for female empowerment. There is an echo here of the variety of feminist responses towards Sherman’s work, hinging around questions of whether it courts or confounds the male gaze, and if its ongoing performance of female types is emphatic, critical or cruel—whether it’s good or bad feminism.
These very ‘problems’ have seen both the femme fatale and Sherman’s work celebrated within queer culture for their unpicking of the assumptions of straight sexual politics. Both carry a drag sensibility and have opened a space for subsequent reinventions of self outside of the terms of normative identity. Sherman’s masquerade has become a touchstone for much identity-based contemporary art, especially for dominant culture’s marginalised others. It is for these very reasons that transexual icon, Andy Warhol muse, and star of Flesh (1968) Candy Darling remade herself partially in Joan Bennett’s image.
Beyond odd moments of vamping to camera and the documentation of skits and performances, the Casa Susanna photographs carry few traces of the femme fatale. Its subjects more closely channel her noir opposite—the demure femme attrapée or ‘the good woman’. There are numerous images of cooking, cleaning and hosting, mainly set in kitchens or lounges where women mingle and play scrabble. A few of the women even cradle dolls as prop babies. These are photographs that strive to uphold an ideal of respectable, white, middle class femininity—at a time when such ideals were being challenged as never before. Second-wave feminism was taking to the very markers of normative femininity claimed by these men. The Feminine Mystique (1963) urged women to locate their identity outside of the domestic sphere. Art historian Elspeth Brown links the photographs to the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlanta where items from the beauty industry such as false eyelashes, wigs, makeup, high heels, girdles and bras were burnt in a ‘freedom trash can’. These are the very items paraded in these photographs as symbols of liberation rather than ‘instruments of torture’.
At Casa Susanna, this conservative ideal of womanhood was something for these men to strive for, not something to be broken from as in the case of the femme fatale, interrogated as a cultural type as in Cindy Sherman’s photographs, or overthrown as a patriarchal construct by second-wave feminism. This was not an identity to escape from, but to escape to—even if just for the weekend. The joy and liberation that came with inhabiting these enfemme identities radiates across the collection. It is the opposite of how Sherman’s characters often seem trapped by and desperately unhappy within found or forced identities that end up inhabiting them. Unlike the masquerade and role-play of Bennett and Sherman, these photographs are based on the belief in the existence of an authentic self or selves that could not be safely expressed in the unsympathetic world outside of these photographs and the Casa Susanna community.
There is a more direct connection between Bennett and the Casa Susanna photographs. While filming Dark Shadows in 1968, Bennett met her future fourth husband, the writer and film critic David Wilde. She would move into his Brownstone house on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. Bennett knew Greenwich Village well, or at least its simulacrum as a key setting in film noir. Fritz Lang made the titular street in Scarlett Street in a Hollywood studio to resemble Carmine Street—located just around the corner from Wilde’s townhouse.
Wilde had visited Casa Susanna as Gail and was an active member of the community. His house had functioned as an unofficial offsite location of Casa Susanna. Gail would answer the phone ‘Downtown branch’, in reference to the uptown location of Susanna’s Manhattan apartment, the primary site for the community’s activities outside of its weekend getaways. Many of the photographs in Cindy Sherman’s collection were shot at Susanna’s apartment which is notably more lavishly decorated and appointed than the semi-dilapidated bungalow in Hunter.
As well as appearing in some of the images, Gail played a crucial role in the making, collecting and preservation of the Casa Susanna photographs. Most of the surviving images are now credited to ‘official’ photographer Andrea Susan (Jack Malick)—she has been identified as the photographer standing outside the frame in that staged paparazzi attack on Lily. In a 2015 interview with historian Dallas Denny, Malick/Susan recounts how it was Wilde who set her up to become the Casa Susanna photographer. He provided an expensive Rolex camera, an enlarger, photo developing equipment and facilities, while encouraging her to learn colour-processing techniques. Susan was subsequently able to make high quality colour and black-and-white photographs. This removed the risks that came with using professional or commercial developers, and broke the earlier dependence on polaroids which had also answered the need for secrecy. In exchange for his largesse, Wilde was provided with a copy of every photograph that Susan took. Susan recalls Wilde placing the photographs in expensive albums brought from Bloomingdales.
According to Wilde’s friends Katherine Cummings and Andrea Susan, Bennett strongly opposed her husband’s cross-dressing. Wives had regularly visited Casa Susanna and appear frequently in the images—Sherman states that one of her favourite aspects of the photographs is spotting the often ordinary-looking wife slumping beside her immaculately dressed and made up enfemme husband. Some of these transformations were aided by Susanna’s wife Marie, who as well as co-running the resort, was one of New York’s finest wig makers. Marie epitomises the supportive cross-dresser’s wife of which Bennett was the opposite. She sought to keep this dimension of Wilde’s life firmly in the past. Respecting her wishes, Wilde did not cross-dress through their marriage and kept women’s clothing out of the house.
This tension came to a head around the Casa Susanna photographs after Bennett and Wilde decided to move to the suburbs. According to Andrea Susan, Bennett told Wilde ‘You are not bringing those fucking pictures into my house. I don’t care what you do with them’. Following a drunken argument, Wilde apparently took all the albums and dumped them outside the house where the trash was collected. In another case of life imitating art, Christopher Cross’s wife threatens to dump his paintings on the kerb in Scarlet Street. It’s the ultimate betrayal which sends Cross into the duplicitous arms of Kitty March. When Wilde returned to collect the photographs the following morning they had disappeared—symbolically banished forever to Scarlet Street on the orders of Joan Bennett.
In 2004, antique dealer Robert Swope found a box of photographs of cross-dressing men at a flea market on Manhattan’s 26th street. Dismissing the first images he saw as ‘more guys in drag mugging for the camera’, he was soon captivated by the banality of an image of a cross-dresser knitting on a sofa. He followed this trail to uncover the rich cache of photographs that came out of Casa Susanna. With his partner, Michel Hurst, Swope published a book of the photographs. The Casa Susanna images and story became public for the first time.
In seeking to ascribe value to these vernacular photographs as ‘witnessing’ images, Swope turned to an unlikely source, questioning:
Now in the twenty-first century, contemporary artists have for years been using ‘dress-up’ and photography as a means of expression. Could it be that the inhabitants of Casa Susanna were perhaps, in their own way, and in a different time, exploring some of the same themes of image-gender- identity?’
Little did Swope know that Cindy Sherman, who he was likely alluding to in this statement, was sitting on her own found collection of Casa Susanna photographs.
The Art Gallery of Ontario purchased Swope and Hurst’s collection of 340 photographs in 2014. Two years later, they were exhibited in Outsiders: American Photography and Film 1950s-1980s which also included Nan Goldin, Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Kenneth Anger, artists set on challenging established notions of individual and collective identities. The AGO have granted visibility to this once invisible history. It has presented the photographs as murals in public spaces and made the entire collection accessible via the Digital Transgender Archive—an online resource dedicated to transgender history. In 2013, Cindy Sherman included a small selection of her Casa Susanna photographs within an elaborate ‘anatomical theatre’ staged as part of The Encyclopaedic Palace exhibition in the 55th Venice Biennale. The photographs were presented alongside found and collected objects and art works including dolls, puppets, mannequins, Charles Ray’s sculpture of a monstrous-feminine businesswoman and Paul McCarthy’s anatomically-incorrect, soft-sculptural teaching aids. The entire collection was shown with her other found albums and scrapbooks in the exhibition Other People’s Photographs at City Gallery Wellington in 2016, alongside a large survey of her work. This was the first time the connection between her found and made photographs has been made in this way. Pop culture has also given new life to Casa Susanna. The retreat was the inspiration for ‘Casa Valentina’ in a Harvey Fierstein musical and ‘Camp Camellia’ on the television show Transparent.
Joan Bennett died of a heart attack aged eighty in 1990. According to Andrea Susan, she died while hosting a dinner meeting to discuss a potential Broadway adaptation of the Casa Susanna story. While Wilde had respected his wife’s insistence that he stop cross-dressing, Katherine Cummings, who had returned to Australia, remained in regular correspondence with Gail. Cummings insists that ‘after Joan’s death … Gail was rapidly resurrected.’ One of Gail’s letters to Cummings included a photograph that brings all of the elements of this story together. It shows Gail in makeup, wig and dress, standing beside a table of family photographs. Hanging on the wall above is a portrait of her beloved Joan Bennett–not just any portrait, but the painting that Professor Wanley stares at through the glass in The Woman in the Window.
 Pascal Clement’s photograph of Sherman in her studio appears in Blake Gopnik’s article ‘Cindy Sherman Takes on Aging (Her Own)’, New York Times, 21 April 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/arts/design/cindy-sherman-takes-on-aging-her-own.html
 Elyssa Goodman, ‘A Touch of Autobiograpy in Cindy Sherman’s New Classic Hollywood Portraits’, http://hyperallergic.com/303445/a-touch-of-autobiography-in-cindy-shermans-new-classic-hollywood-portraits/
 Imogen Smith, ‘Repeat Offenders 3: The Arc of Joan’, http://chiseler.org/post/72496893510/repeat-offenders-part-3-the-arc-of-joan
 Joan Bennett and Lois Kibbee, The Bennett Playbill (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 43.
 Steven Rybin, ‘Joan Bennett, Fritz Lang and the Frame of Performance’ in Joe McElhaney (ed), A Companion to Fritz Lang (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 2015), 341.
 The paintings were of course not painted by March or Cross, but by Hollywood set designer John Decker. The twelve paintings he made for Scarlet Street were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1946.
 Dina Di Mambro, ‘The Glamorous Bennett Sisters: Constance & Joan’, http://www.classichollywoodbios.com/bennettsisters.htm
 ‘Actress’ Mate Shots Escort: Joan Bennett Looks on as Bullets Fly’, Chicago Tribune, 14 December, 1951
 Dina Di Mambro, ‘The Glamorous Bennett Sisters: Constance & Joan’, http://www.classichollywoodbios.com/bennettsisters.htm
 Susanna wrote a regular column ‘Susanna Says’ for Virginia Prince’s Transvestia magazine. This quote comes from one of those columns. Quoted in ‘A Gender Variance of Who’s Who’, https://zagria.blogspot.co.nz/2012/02/susanna-valenti-192-translator.html#.WHhJsbZ950J
 This photograph is not part of Cindy Sherman’s collection. It is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario collection.
 Katherine Cummings, Katherine’s Diary: The Story of a Transexual (New York: BookSurge Publishing, 2008),155.
 Maxfield, James F, The Fatal Woman: Sources of Male Anxiety in American Film Noir, 1941-1991 (London: Associated University Presses, Inc, 1996), 9.
 Candy Darling, Candy Darling: Memoirs of an Andy Warhol Superstar (New York: Open Road Media, 2015), 43.
 ‘Outsiders – Casa Susanna: On Photography and the Play of Gender’, 2016, https://soundcloud.com/agotoronto/2016-podcast-ago-talk-outsiders-casa-susanna-on-photography-and-the-play-of-gender
 Nicholas Smedley, A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema and Emigré Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933-1948 (Chicago: Intellect Books, 2011), 119.
 Katherine Cummings, Katherine’s Diary: The Story of a Transexual (New York: BookSurge Publishing, 2008), 133.
 Anthony Byrt, ‘American horror story’, Metro, p.98.
 While agreeing on Bennett’s reaction to Wilde’s cross-dressing, Andrea Susan and Katherine Cummings disagree on how the Casa Susanna photographs became public. Cummings argues that Wilde would never have disposed of the photographs in this manner. When relocating to Scarsdale, Wilde entrusted Cummings with a large chest full of his ‘female impedimenta’ for safe keeping. She argues the photographs were in fact in his possession, they would have been part of this consignment. She thinks it more likely that the photographs were discarded by Susanna’s family after her death, or acquired through a storage-lot auction. Katherine Cummings, email correspondence with the author, 2 December 2016.
 Michael Hurst and Robert Swope, Casa Susanna (New York: Powerhouse Books, 2005), unpaginated.
 Katherine Cummings, Katherine’s Diary: The Story of a Transexual (New York: BookSurge Publishing, 2008), 196.