Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21. 1978
This is the first Cindy Sherman photograph I ever saw. Lecturer Norbert Loeffler showed it in a 1983 class at PSC and I was probably the only student that really got it. Sherman’s idea of pop culture play-acting was a new idea to us, but I understood the reference she was making so the picture made sense.
Sherman was referencing the postwar phenomenon of the young career woman starting out in the man’s world of business in New York. This new social type attracted press attention and appeared in literature and film.
Hope Lange in The Best of Everything, 1959
The image Sherman had in mind was this, actress Hope Lange playing an aspiring secretary in the 1959 movie The Best of Everything. Note the similarity of costume. Lange arrives at a company address clutching a job ad that says “Secretaries – you deserve the best of everything”. She soon learns that working for Joan Crawford is less than the best.
Lange is looking up at the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, itself a newcomer to the city. Designed by Mies van der Rohe it opened only the year before and was already the trendiest office address in Manhattan. This modern young woman is starting in the most modern address. Behind her you can see the other great prototype of International Style architecture, Lever House, 1952.
Greg Neville, tram stop ad, November 2014
Recently, this tram stop ad appeared in Melbourne, the 1950s iconography intact. The young upwardly-mobile career woman is still surrounded by menacing but exciting skyscrapers. This time it’s in black & white, giving a photojournalistic reality to the photograph.
The origin story for this narrative of female empowerment was this edition of Life Magazine published just after World War II.
Life Magazine 1948, photograph by Leonard McCombe
Staff photographer Leonard McCombe followed a young graduate from Missouri university, Gwyned Fillig, as she made her way in the wilds of New York. She worked as copywriterin a Madison Avenue ad agency. The article is a classic Life Magazine photo essay, treating the subject as an anthropological study. Fillig is seen in her “native habitat” at work, at the diner and at home.
Gwynid Fiilig’s story caused a sensation in 1948 and briefly made her a celebrity. She became the representative example of the educated, aspiring young professional woman. Her story was typical of thousands of similar women at the time, especially in one unfortunate detail. The year after the article was published she got married and was immediately sacked from her job. Company policy was to have no married women on staff.