Performance and Still Photograph: Marilyn Monroe

By Jacobowitz, Florence; Lippe, Richard | CineAction, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Performance and Still Photograph: Marilyn Monroe

Jacobowitz, Florence, Lippe, Richard, CineAction

She knew she was superlative at creating still pictures and she loved doing it. She didn't have to learn lines as she did for her movies, she could let her imagination range freely without concern about consistency or continuity, she could be a different Marilyn for each photographer or each frame of film. It was always her party and often there would be champagne and music, but always total attention. It was she who in essence was saying, "Let's make a Marilyn."

-Eve Arnold

OF ALL THE FILM STARS, MARILYN MONROE WAS, perhaps, the most photographed. Her image remains potent long after her death, circulating through a steady proliferation of still images marketed as books, posters, photographs, advertisements. The May/June 1997 issue of American Photo, billed a "collector's issue" and "a tribute to America's Ultimate Icon" offers "rare," "never-seen" photographs taken by a variety of photographers. Arguably, Monroe's persona is more identified with the still image than it is with the films she made. For instance, The Seven Year Itch (1955) is better known for the photographic images of Monroe in a white halter dress, standing over a subway grate, enjoying the blast of air blowing up her dress, conveying a sense of narcissistic, exhibitionistic pleasure, than it is as a narrative film. (1) It isn't because her film work is insignificant. Her star persona was fed by a number of components--her talent as an actor, her voice and ability as a singer, her sense of timing and understanding of performance--all central to what defines the image.

Marilyn Monroe's career as a photographer's model was ongoing from 1946 until her death. She began as a model, but became a working collaborator in the construction of her photographs; she was an artist who was well aware of the process of constructing the acclaimed `magic' rapport she had with the camera. That expertise, knowledge and professionalism were the key to the extraordinary success of so many of her photographs, taken by a wide range of photographers. Monroe worked with some of the great photographers of the 20th Century, including Alfred Eisenstadt, Richard Avedon, Philippe Halsman, Eve Arnold, Milton H. Greene, Cecil Beaton, Bert Stern, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt as well as lesser-known talents whose reputations were enhanced through their association with Monroe. She was also photographed by studio glamour photographers such as Frank Powolny and Gene Korman who contributed to establishing Monroe's recognizable iconicity; Twentieth Century-Fox, capitalizing on the familiarity of the visual aspects of her persona, promoted these images in conjunction with her film career. However, Monroe's well-known photographic images extend far beyond the studio's marketing complex. Monroe sought out favored artists like Eve Arnold with whom she worked regularly on photographic shoots/sessions over a number of years. An extraordinary historical moment deserving mention took place on the set of The Misfits (1961): a number of the prestigious Paris-based Magnum group of photojournalists were hired as a rotating group of photographers (including Eve Arnold) on a well-publicized assignment to shoot informal and set stills. (The film, directed by John Huston, features, in addition to Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, two actors who are in their own right highly iconic figures).

We are focusing on Marilyn Monroe: An Appreciation by Eve Arnold for a number of reasons (2), partly because of the significance of the imagery and also because Arnold was the only woman photographer to shoot Monroe on an ongoing basis. Interestingly, Monroe, who is male-identified in so many aspects of her personal and professional life, worked with a number of key women professionals; aside from her longstanding collaborative relationship with Eve Arnold, she formed partnerships with two drama coaches, first Natasha Lytess, later Paula Strasberg. Unlike the dubiously productive and highly controversial relationships between Monroe and these women, the one with Arnold was clearly creative and fruitful.

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