Marilyn Monroe, actress, New York [Richard Avedon]

Photog to the stars

Museum of Modern Art

MOMA knows everything goes better with Bacon!

Saher Sohail

Contributor

We all summon up a mental picture of a curvy blonde with a white skirt aerated over a subway grate when we hear the words “Marilyn Monroe” but Richard Avedon made sure the world saw that this girl had more to share

In spite of how fantastic she looks, Marilyn Monroe is not wearing one of her usual flirty, sexy, pin-up girl expressions. In fact, she looks small, tired and lost. She looks like Marilyn Monroe, the curvy sex symbol loved by the masses, but she doesn’t feel like Marilyn Monroe. No, Richard Avedon waited for her to let her public face down during a portrait session with the blonde bombshell, and THEN photographed her.

This picture won a lot of critical acclaim when heavyweights like Vik Muniz and Roland Barthes lauded the photograph, and it's recognized as one of Avedon's most memorable portraits ever. Many famous photographers sought diverse subjects to re-interpret the image and imitate Marilyn’s memorable un-pose. FYI, a Sudanese supermodel and Pamela Anderson were amongst some of these new muses. About a year later, Avedon photographed Monroe again for Life Magazine, and this time she dressed as some of the silver screen’s biggest stars. Unfortunately, Avedon and Monroe both were unable to top this chef-d'oeuvre.

On that day of May 1957, she tried out a lot of her characteristic Marilyn moves to get the right photograph.  And though Avedon and his camera loved the lively subject, he still wasn’t entirely pleased with the results he was getting. Here’s what he says about that session: “For hours she danced and flirted and she did this thing that's– she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.” Sneaky, but effective photographer trick!

Thanks to Avedon’s cunning, we have yet another iconic image of Ms. Monroe, but in this one, under the layers of her public persona, we see Norma Jean. Without her seductive, breathy-voiced act, she looks like a little girl who has no idea what to do. Avedon’s simple background of stark white doesn’t mess with the focal point of the picture either. Goes to show that a good photographer needs no props and relies on his subject for a captivating picture! It also emphasizes her narrow frame, perhaps hunched over because she’s tired from all the drinking and performing or maybe weighed down by her (amazing) rack. One can’t be sure, but this much is true: this photograph is the realest representation of the tragic Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe, whose life was lost in a series of unfortunate relationships, drugs and her celebrity image that was literally consumed by the public. This picture shows us the product that’s been stripped away, leaving behind only the person.