Eve Arnold took some of my favorite photos of Marilyn Monroe. Like this candid one.
Eve Arnold has written a couple of books about Marilyn (mainly photo books) and there’s a lot of great insights there about the relationship between Marilyn and the camera, which even directors who found her a handful and a half to direct (like Billy Wilder) could not deny was something completely out of the ordinary. The camera turned on, and Marilyn decided to become Marilyn. And the audience, millions of miles away, and months away from the time of shooting, got her. Marilyn skipped right over the heads of the directors, the editors, the publicists, and went straight to the public, who loved her.
Here are some of Arnold’s quote about Marilyn’s magic:
I never knew anyone who even came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera. She was special in this, and for me there has been no one like her before or after. She has remained the measuring rod by which I have — unconsciously — judged other subjects.
Story after story from photographers tell of this plain-looking rather blanched-faced woman showing up at the studio who then just transformed when the camera clicked. It was not just a matter of makeup. There are plenty of beautiful girls. It was a matter of turning a light on inside. And Monroe was not only conscious of this, this was no accident of talent, or coloring, or working hard … She knew how to be photographed better than anybody.
Eve Arnold again:
If an editor wanted her, he had to agree to her terms. She knew how she wanted to be seen, and if her cooperation was sought, she reserved the right of veto.
She knew she was superlative at creating still pictures and she loved doing it.
She had learned the trick of moving infinitesimally to stay in range, so that the photographer need not refocus but could easily follow movements that were endlessly changing.
At first I thought it was surface technique, but it went beyond technique. It didn’t always work, and sometimes she would tire and it was as though her radar had failed; but when it did work, it was magic. With her it was never a formula; it was her will, her improvisation.
Photographer Burt Glinn had this to say:
She had no bone structure — the face was a Polish flat plate. Not photogenic in the accepted sense, the features were not memorable or special; what she had was the ability to project.
Yup. That’s the actress in her. She projected herself into the dreams and fantasies of the audience, and you can see it in the photos, sure, but you can also see it in the films. Watch her. Watch how her face moves. How her eyes close slightly, open, become serious and wide, and then drowsy again. This is projection. It cannot be duplicated. She is literally in a class all her own in this regard. People try to imitate Monroe, and fail. Because, at heart, she is one of our most organic of actresses. If she didn’t feel it (like Arnold wrote above), she couldn’t do it. This is why she could be a nightmare on the set. If she didn’t feel “her” when it came time to shoot the scene (she would refer to that person who came out of her when the cameras were rolling in the third person … “So do you want to see ‘her’?”), panic would set in, and she would lock herself in her trailer, or get lost on the way to the location, or whatever. It had to come from inside, or she couldn’t do it.
Even in moments of either a pause between shots – or – sadness? – she is riveting. Arnold again:
Who knows what is going on here. She might just be resting, or thinking, and the camera, for whatever magic reason, picks up on the underlying sadness there. That was the kind of relationship Marilyn had with the camera: it was intimate. And that was Arnold’s gift, too, to be able to capture it.
Now obviously that photo is all about her body and its curves, but if you look at her face, if you look at that expression, you will see that it’s a startlingly intimate expression. We are so used to seeing images of Marilyn Monroe that it’s hard to remember how out-of-the-ordinary she was. How nobody does it like her. Her eyes are half-closed, she’s got a soft and vulnerable look on her face, and she lets the camera IN. No wonder audiences always felt protective of her. Anyone that vulnerable obviously needs protection.
Ernest Cunningham, another photographer who worked with her, said:
I worked with Marilyn Monroe. A rather dull person. But when I said “Now!” she lit up. Suddenly, something unbelievable came across. The minute she heard the click of the camera, she was down again. It was over. I said, “What is it between you and the camera that doesn’t show at any other time?” She said, “It’s like being screwed by a thousand guys and you can’t get pregnant.”
That’s what it is, isn’t it? She felt intimate with the camera. It was where she could project. She knew that the camera could see everything and so she LET it see everything. She was loved by that camera more than she was ever loved by any human being.
But I don’t mean to pathologize this woman. Her pathology/psychology is not what interests me about her.
What interests me, above all, is her magic.