The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Didn't You Just Love the Picture? I Did.
That’s what Marilyn Monroe asks Tom Ewell in a scene from the 1955 movie, The Seven Year Itch, as they exit a New York City movie theater and just before they stop and stand on a subway grating. As they talk more (at one point in the conversation, Monroe mentions she’s got to get home because she’s going to be on television the next morning), a subway rushes by underground, creating a gust of air that lifts up Monroe’s white, diaphanous, and billowy skirt. The scene, full of photographic and erotic references, created a sensation at the time, not for what was actually seen on screen, but in response to the circumstances carefully constructed to draw attention to the star and create opportunities for leering as a result of the repetitive process of film-making. In a piece about photo ops that cultural critic Kiku Adato wrote for click!, she reminds us that while “the very act of posing makes a picture inauthentic” it “does not diminish the power of the image or undermine its message.” That’s certainly the case with one of the widely circulated film stills and images of Marilyn Monroe, one of the most photographed women in the 20th century. A new click! story by Lois Banner—who has written extensively on American women and notions of beauty—takes a close look at the iconic moment when over one-hundred photographers and over 1,500 male onlookers showed up in the middle-of-the-night on September 15, 1954 to witness a publicity stunt orchestrated by a Twentieth Century-Fox publicist. On that evening, director Billy Wilder filmed 15 takes of the scene, and in between each take, photographers snapped away and onlookers oogled as sex-symbol Monroe’s skirt went airborne again and again and again, and flew so high that Hollywood censors ultimately demanded a tamer re-shoot that Wilder was forced to make on a Hollywood stage set. Banner—focusing in particular on photographer Sam Shaw’s shot, one of the best and certainly the most reproduced of all the images made that night—makes a strong case for Monroe’s comedic talent, mesmerizing photographic presence, and lasting influence as a sex goddess. Interestingly, photographs of Monroe are at the center of yet another click! story, this one told by Hugh Hefner who described how another group of iconic and racy photos of her catapulted Playboy magazine into America’s cultural consciousness, and ultimately upped the ante on what kinds of photographic images could be sent through the US Mail. While many beauties of the past have been forgotten, images of Monroe have lasting power and exercise a libidinal and economic hold over us. To get a sense of how valuable Monroe’s image is today, almost 50 years after her death, visit the web site of CMG—a leading corporation in the business of licensing rights to images of deceased celebrities—to see how photography, celebrity and cash registers work in sync, long after those whose pictures once captured our imagination are dead and gone.