See Marilyn Monroe through the Eyes of 8 Famous Photographers
Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson, bore a heavy weight as the archetypal sex symbol of the 1950s and ’60s. Her highs and lows have all become legend: her high-profile marriages and splits from baseballer Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller; her secret affair and birthday-cake serenade with then-president John F. Kennedy; and her final, turbulent years before her early death from barbiturate overdose at age 36. Less discussed has been her bold decision to disrupt the film industry by co-founding her own production company, as well as her attempts to command agency over her own image.
Countless renowned photographers sought to capture the “real” Monroe, and she knew the power that the camera held. Today, we’re more aware that our favorite celebrities maintain a carefully crafted public image, but Monroe’s enigma still fascinates us. “There was no such person as Marilyn Monroe,” Richard Avedon once said of her. “[She was] invented, like an author creates a character.”
Here are eight famous photographers who captured the late, great comedic actress.
Celebrities didn’t often sit for Philippe Halsman; instead, they jumped. Following each shoot with the photographer, he would ask them to take a leap of faith in front of the camera, believing that moment of suspension to be their most open and true. Monroe acquiesced, as all celebrities, artists, and royals did under Halsman’s lens, and she jumped high, legs tucked and grinning.
Halsman became acquainted with Monroe when he had photographed her for a Life cover story in 1952. The shoot took place in her modest apartment in Hollywood when she was breaking into the industry. Monroe posed in a slinky off-the-shoulder dress for the cover shot, but she also performed a series of exercises in a bikini top and slacks. The series, though still glamorous, feels a little more earnest than many of her editorials; Monroe isn’t an untouchable sex symbol, but a woman at ease in her own living space, daydreaming on the floor or laughing mid-handstand.
Garry Winogrand’s oeuvre has been defined by his quote that “all things are photographable.” In capturing all the minutiae of New York City’s streets for three decades, he chronicled a much larger snapshot of a changing America. He also crystallized iconic moments, and one of his rolls of film included the most recreated New York moments of all time: Monroe holding her white dress down, her head thrown back in laughter, as the wind from a subway grate blows her skirt up.
Though there were other photographers on the set of The Seven Year Itch (1955) who witnessed the scene, Winogrand’s image of a laughing Monroe has endured. The street photographer faced Monroe head-on. His frame did not show the calculated flirtatiousness she employed on set and in life, but open joy.
When Monroe sat for Richard Avedon in 1957, it was a meeting of two creative powerhouses who would each become iconic in their respective fields. Avedon was working as a staff photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, and Monroe had just successfully out-maneuvered 20th Century Fox in a contract victory that gave her more direction over her projects.
The portrait from their session together become one of her highest-valued images because of the emotional truth it seemed to reveal. “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s—she did Marilyn Monroe,” Avedon once recalled of the shoot. “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 I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.”
Monroe is glamorous in her signature curled hair, lined eyelids, and a glittering dress, but her gaze reveals sorrow just beneath the surface. The Telegraph called it “the most honest picture ever taken” of her. The photo sold for £77,500 at Sotheby’s in 2016, blowing past its high estimation of £50,000.
During a time when few women had access to the editorial and photojournalism worlds, Eve Arnold was the first woman to be admitted to the storied photo agency Magnum Photos. She was also one of the only women to photograph Monroe.
The two women worked together multiple times over the course of a decade, beginning in the early 1950s. Arnold was on the set of Monroe’s final film, The Misfits, in 1960, which co-starred Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. Within six years, all three stars of the film would be dead, with Gable and Clift both dying from heart attacks. Magnum’s photographers were given exclusive access to the set, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, and Elliot Erwitt. But it was Arnold whom Monroe is said to have favored. Arnold wasn’t looking to heighten Monroe’s sex appeal, and instead photographed the actress with a more nuanced eye.
Arnold’s images from The Misfits still show a rose-tinted view of Monroe working in the desert. The reality was much more turbulent: Production was halted for Monroe to complete a two-week stint in rehab, and she and Miller ended their marriage.
Douglas Kirkland recalls his shoot with Monroe like something out of a fantasy: He was the small-town twentysomething photographer, and she was the self-assured vixen. According to Kirkland, the actress requested Frank Sinatra records and Dom Pérignon, and asked all other set members to leave. Kirkland told WWD in 2017 that the shoot in 1961 “got very sexually charged.” Whatever the case, his images did contribute to her bombshell image, as she rolled around in an unmade bed and Kirkland leaned over a loft balcony to capture the scene.
When Kirkland visited her the following day to make selects, he found Monroe in a more moody state. She wound up destroying nearly 60 of his negatives. “She was selling me on how special [the pictures] were,” he told WWD. “She cut up half of them, but the ones she left me with were quite extraordinary. That’s the Marilyn we know.”
The ill-fated film Something’s Got to Give (1962) never finished production after Monroe was fired from the starring role, and it was abandoned entirely after she died. Lawrence Schiller’s behind-the-scenes images, which first titillated the world, became a tragic ode to the end of her life.
Monroe was only meant to feign nudity during a scene with co-star Dean Martin where she jumped into a pool, but she removed her suit entirely on the set. Schiller has said she did so to prove her command over the media at a time when Elizabeth Taylor was receiving far more money for Cleopatra (1963). It would have been the first nude scene for an American actress in a Hollywood film, though last year, a report surfaced that another nude scene of Monroe was cut from the earlier film The Misfits.
Schiller and another photographer on set, Billy Woodfield, combined their images and sold them as a single exclusive to Life with Monroe’s approval. After she was fired from the film for being persistently disruptive, an image from the shoot of her in a blue terry-cloth robe ran on the cover with the text: “A skinny dip you’ll never see.”
Just six weeks before her death, Monroe sat for advertising and fashion photographer Bert Stern, who was on assignment for Vogue. The actress held sheer Vera Neumann scarves against her bare torso and pink oversized roses against her breasts. She wore nothing but white sheets in bed, then exchanged that for an elegant black Dior evening gown. It was the last time she would ever model. Even without the finality of the shoot, the photographs would have caused a sensation. The teasing and carefree flow of the photos belied a darker undercurrent, one inextricably colored with morbidity. Stern’s images have cemented themselves in pop culture.
In 1982, Stern released the book The Complete Last Sitting. The photographer’s contact sheets have since become sought-after works, as well, with slashes of orange marker across Monroe’s face adding a graphic touch. In 2013, 10 photographs made from the original negatives more than doubled an estimated auction price, reaching $41,250 at Freeman’s in Philadelphia.
Milton H. Greene was Monroe’s friend and confidant, as well as her business partner for her production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP). Greene shot for all the top publications, like Life, Harper’s Bazaar,and Vogue, and began working with Monroe while on assignment for Look. Under his lens, her personality shone through, and she is often shown in the real world, rather than the vacuum of a studio set. In one image, she’s half-submerged in a pool, hair wet and makeup absent, her smile hidden but her eyes effervescent.
Monroe lived with Greene for a time when she needed a friend, staying in his Connecticut farmhouse. While there, he took thousands of photos of her. Many remain unseen in Greene’s archives, but his son Joshua has released books of them after his father’s death, including the 2017 title The Essential Marilyn Monroe by Milton H. Greene.