A Tale of Two Marilyn's
Considering power dynamics in the art of making portraits
Living in a time where we’re literally inundated with images, I've found it increasingly important to understand how to “read” images well. There are tons of great books and thinkers who talk excellently about this in many nuanced ways. But for me, and increasingly my students, we need accessible ways to quickly assess visual works … especially when they are images of people.
To this end I created a four question set that I use to establish quickly some context for a photograph. I call it the four questions of power. They are:
Who is in the photo?
Who created the photo?
What was the initial intent of the photograph?
Who profits or benefits from the photograph?
One of my favorite examples of this are two stunning photographs of Marilyn Monroe by two different photographers.
Let’s look at the one by Avedon first. It’s captivating. This mid-century icon unmasked. Avedon often photographed powerful and famous people. Monroe was no exception. Avedon’s stated aim in his work was to capture people unveiled. Raw. Intimate. Given Monroe’s somewhat lost expression — when her public persona was the exact opposite — we can see Avedon was successful in his aim.
Let’s go deeper though. In his book, “Richard Avedon portraits [sic],” he says:
“For hours she danced and sang and flirted and 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 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.”
Using the four questions above, let’s go deeper.
Who’s the photographer? Avedon, a man who possessed a great amount of influence and access given his profession and genetics. I would imagine very few people said “no” to him in 1957.
Who’s in the photograph? Monroe, a woman who possessed a lot of social capital and influence, and yet was often portrayed as more object and subject. A woman, who we now know, was suffering a great deal. And that we can see a glimpse of in this portrait. What would it have cost her to say no, personally or professionally? Was she capable of enthusiastic consent to having her portrait made at the end of a long night out? We know today that consent is a lot more than not saying no.
The initial intent? I’d think it fair to assume Avedon was simply aiming to pursue his goal of unmasking famous people. At the height of his career (and hers) Avedon could have accurately guessed the spread this portrait was capable of at that time (let alone ours). Yet, today we understand better that intent isn’t the same as impact.
Who profits from the photograph? In this case it seems Avedon profited in his career and likely financially, especially over time as the image gained popularity given the cultural draw of his sitter. I struggle to find what Monroe would have benefitted from this exchange. Is it possible she wanted to unmask herself for her fans and reveal the true Monroe through Avedon’s photography? Sure. Is it likely she chose this night, in this moment, by simply not saying no? Unlikely.
Let’s look at the next Monroe portrait by photographer Eve Arnold. Photographing Monroe multiple times over a 10-year span, her most memorable portraits are from the set of Monroe’s movie, “The Misfits,” in 1960 where Arnold has a handful of playful portraits of Monroe from between takes. Here Monroe feels relaxed and in her own skin. She’s not in her polished persona — it feels as if she’s having fun with a friend who happens to be taking photo. And we know she is aware of this because Monroe is looking straight at Arnold who’s holding her camera. This portrait feels ever so different from the other. About her time working with Monroe, Arnold said:
“I never knew anyone who even came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera', said Arnold. 'She knew what to do. She would impose her psychic needs, her moods, her eroticism upon the session, working rapidly so that expression after fleeting expression wafted across her face, her body moving sinuously in cadence so the photographer could only try to keep up.... If I felt she was flagging and it was necessary, I would say what was wanted and she would swing into action. Mainly what was wanted was for her just to be herself.”
Going through the questions of power we can see: 1) Arnold and Monroe are peers of a sort who were on more or less equal power ground with one another. 2) Here Monroe is self-possessed and consenting. She is aware of Arnold’s role on set and chooses to let her true self be witnessed by Arnold as they engaged between takes. 3) Arnold’s intent in this moment was to document Monroe throughout the filming process. 4) They both profited, though differently. Arnold was paid for her work; Monroe got to share herself unveiled in front of someone she developed trust with and respect for. They had mutual affection for one another and transcended their roles of photographer and subject.
And indeed, here, Monroe remains a subject — not object.
May our looking and our photographing continue to humanize us all to one another, to such a degree that we are all subjects to one another at all times.