The Joy and Sorrow of Richard Avedon’s Marilyn

America’s greatest portrait photographer, Richard Avedon, was born 100 years ago today, on May 15th, 1923. He first met Marilyn in 1954, while she was filming The Seven Year Itch in New York. They worked together on several occasions during the late 1950s, most notably on the ‘Fabled Enchantresses’ shoot, and promoting Some Like It Hot. Over the years they became good friends, and after Marilyn died, Avedon was determined to treat her legacy with respect. (You can read more Avedon here and at the ES Updates Archive.)

Although their collaborations emphasised Marilyn’s dazzling glamour, they also reveal her many moods – none more so than his unforgettable portrait captured at the end of a 1957 shoot, now known as ‘Sad Marilyn.’ By contrast, a montage of images from a later session show Marilyn at her most effervescent. She wore her favourite ‘mermaid gowns’ by Norman Norell on both occasions, but her hair was styled differently each time.

“Dick had put up this huge bubble-jet poster of a sequence of pictures he’d taken of Marilyn in a tight sequinned dress: she was laughing in one of them, she had her hands on her hips in another one, in another her head was down, then up … One morning the first thing, when I was making the coffee, I observed him standing in front of the poster mimicking all her poses, reliving the shoot in a way – almost asking, with his own body, ‘Did I get all I could?’ And of course he had!” – Tim Walker, Avedon: Something Personal

These contrasting portraits are featured in a new exhibition, Avedon 100, at the Gagosian gallery in New York until June 24th, accompanied by a full catalogue (which follows another recent monograph, Richard Avedon: Relationships.)

“The exhibition opens with multiple images of Marilyn Monroe, cavorting for his camera in 1957 and montaged in a 1994 print. Monroe is a star performer, overshadowing similar montages Avedon made of Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford, who lacked their predecessor’s halogen incandescence. After putting on a show, Monroe sat exhausted in the studio, and Avedon (with her tacit consent) took a final picture, the ‘sad Marilyn’ portrait that is one of his best known. Because of her untimely death five years later, this picture is regarded as a more authentic self-expression. But is it? Or is it merely physical fatigue?” – Arthur Lubow, New York Times 

A detail from the ‘Dancing Marilyn’ sequence also graces the cover of the latest Gagosian Quarterly magazine, with the mural folding out over four pages inside. (If you’re outside the US, try eBay or the UK Newsstand store.)