When Richard Avedon Met Marilyn

What Becomes a Legend Most, Philip Gefter’s new biography of photographer Richard Avedon, recounts his work with Marilyn, beginning with their first encounter in September 1954.

“Soon after Dick returned from shooting the collections in Paris, a publicity event was staged only blocks from his studio for the movie The Seven Year Itch … Dick may have known Sam Shaw through Milton Greene, but it’s possible, too, they first met in the theatre community … Shaw often conceived the entire publicity campaign for the films he worked on. The day before the subway grate scene, Shaw brought Marilyn Monroe and Billy Wilder, the director, to Avedon’s studio to be photographed for Harper’s Bazaar. Tagging along with them was Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist …

Dick photographed Marilyn Monroe and Billy Wilder, and Sam Shaw documented the photographic session, as if he were making film stills of the publicity campaign itself. Marilyn is wearing a different white dress from the one she would wear on the subway grate, and a white fur stole around her shoulders. She walks around the studio barefoot, since the shot would not include her from head to toe. In Shaw’s pictures you can see Dick adjusting her hair and positioning her stole, laughing with her at times, or looking at her in mock exasperation. There is a fan on the set, perhaps to create the effect of wind blowing through her hair, simulating motion in a still image. In these behind-the-scenes pictures, it is striking how different Monroe looks when she is not performing for the camera. She is a rather pretty – if indistinct – young woman, but easily becomes ‘Marilyn’ in front of the camera.

Avedon’s picture of Marilyn Monroe and Billy Wilder appeared in the November 1954 issue of Harper’s Bazaar: Wilder points at the viewer – us – as Monroe, her head tilted back, her face a radiant mask, smiles brightly amid a frothy dazzlement of platinum hair and white fur, appearing to take delight in what Wilder is pointing out – her viewers. The text identifies Wilder as the director and Monroe as the star of The Seven Year Itch, giving him all the credit for her transformation and slipping in a dismissive description of her in the process: ‘He is one in the long line of skilful illusionists who have helped a calendar pin-up girl parlay her not inconsiderable resources into the image of the All-American Good Time Girl.’ In fact, she was the skilful illusionist of her own image …

The photo shoot with Marilyn Monroe and Billy Wilder may have been the first time the Hollywood publicity machinery co- opted Avedon’s prestige for its own purposes, even though it was a mutually beneficial arrangement. At this point in his career, Dick was an active participant in editorial choices about who was important enough or interesting enough to showcase for the magazine, and, at the time, Monroe may not have made his cut. Yet this Hollywood publicity portrait coincided with the beginning of Dick’s introduction to the world of Hollywood that would soon enough project him into yet another layer of stratospheric fame.”

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