What is it about Marilyn Monroe? She wasn’t the most beautiful star ever to shine in Hollywood, nor the most outrageously curvaceous. Yet we cannot stop looking at her – from every conceivable angle.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death this coming August, Magnum, the co-operative agency founded in 1947 by photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, is releasing Marilyn by Magnum, a collection of images of the late actress encompassing both rarely seen candid snaps, and official portraits familiar to every fan.
It goes without saying that this is a breathtaking collection – you can see that for yourself with this shot (left), taken in New York in 1959. The earliest images, from 1949, are delightful in their artlessness.
We see Marilyn laughing unselfconsciously while performing acting exercises. A collection of “at home” shots from 1952 depict her posing, incongruously, in a sheer negligee, alongside a full bookcase. These images remind one of Eve Arnold’s later photo of Monroe reading Ulysses, and point to the actress’s genuine desire to learn about the world.
There are familiar photos from the sets of The Misfits, Bus Stop and The Seven Year Itch, along with out-takes, and contact sheets that Monroe marked up, approving (or not) images for publication.
I was especially struck by a collection of informal pictures taken at a dinner party attended by Monroe, Arthur Miller, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. What fun it is, reading between the sight lines, when you know about the tensions between the two couples during the filming of Let’s Make Love!
The accompanying text by Gerry Badger tracks the rise of the publicity photo, before recapping the tale of Monroe’s rise to fame, taking into account the era’s penchant for blonde Nordic goddesses. Bizarrely, he comes to the conclusion that the Mona Lisa could have become the world’s most famous painting “if Leonardo had had enough acumen to make her a blonde”. And here I thought it was the world’s most famous painting ...
He comes into his own in describing The Misfits shoot. Magnum had the exclusive rights to document the making of the film and sent nine of their best photographers to the set, two at a time, for 15 days apiece. As a result, the images have a haunting intimacy, especially when you remember that both Clark Gable and Monroe died not long after the film wrapped.
Exquisite, illuminating, and by no means superfluous to requirements, this is a stellar collection fans will want to pore over time and time again.
• Marilyn by Magnum is published by Prestel, priced £29.95
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