Thirty years after her death, Marilyn Monroe's legendary image retains its fascination and allure. Marilyn in her many guises embodies all aspects of The Goddess--virgin, whore, would-be mother, muse, crone. She symbolizes postwar America, fun and glamour, woman as sex object and vessel--and woman as exploited, abused victim.
The arc of Norma Jean Baker's troubled life--from her pathetic, love-starved adolescence, to the sleazy zenith of her Hollywood stardom, to her controversial and premature death--makes for a lurid and well-documented chronicle. The camera was always a part of Marilyn's world, the instrument of her livelihood and the target of her bewitching artistry. She rarely looked the same twice, yet her features are recognizable on an intimate level, a quality that made her a perfect foil for the camera.
In Marilyn Monroe, an exhibit of 140 photographs by 20 photographers, at Camera Obscura Gallery, every imaginable Marilyn makes an appearance. There's no shortage of the luminous, innocent beauty Marilyn could summon with ease; several shots are so famous they're practically modern-day icons. But more interesting are the many candid or rejected stills, some never exhibited before. These show an unknown Marilyn--stiff and awkward, needy and embarrassing, ugly, heavy, wrinkled, caked with makeup, zoned on Thorazine, frighteningly self-aware, crushed and lost.
The less glamorous views of the actress are a revelation, filling in the gaps to make the legend seem very human indeed. The boldness of including them implies that perhaps, at last, we are ready to accept our female "sex symbols" as they really are--vulnerable human beings as frail and imperfect as we are, women of intellect and depth, not just pretty toys. (More likely, the curators of this traveling exhibition found the candid exposures even more arousing than the deliberately provocative cheesecake of the posed shots.)
A bewildering kaleidoscope of Marilyns is visible here, covering every wall of four rooms, well worth the modest admission charged by Camera Obscura. Photographic quality and styles vary widely, including "Bruno of Hollywood" Bernard's heavy-handed glamour-gal shots of a fresh-faced teenager, Eve Arnold's shadowy candids of Marilyn at parties with rich and powerful men, and Ed Feingersh's shocking "publicity pic" of a middle-aged Marilyn at the end of her rope.
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Perhaps most experienced at shooting Marilyn were the professional photographers hired by movie studios to publicize films. Sam Shaw did more to establish Marilyn's elusive public image than anyone with his voluminous takes of the actress on and off the set; his straightforward, mainstream color photos have a journalistic flair that perfectly captures the mood of the times. Elliot Erwitt's group shot of Marilyn with the doomed cast of John Huston's The Misfits reveals a woman of enormous character and strength, an equal to fellow actors Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. Eve Arnold takes a more secretive approach, sneaking up on her subject in order to catch her unprepared.
The exhibition's showpiece is Bernard's history-altering photograph of Marilyn as The Girl in The Seven Year Itch, cooling off on a subway grate. The famous image shows Marilyn holding her skirt decently down against the rush of wind beneath her high-heeled sandals. But the shot displayed here is an outtake, showing panties, pubic hair and a facial expression, surely accidental, that seems to express a lasciviousness the "onstage" Marilyn never did. Though burdened with a bad-girl reputation, the Marilyn saved on film was always a lady, and this photograph, while hardly pornographic, is a violation.
Fortunately, the exploitative sting is eased by the huge variety of photos available for viewing, most showing Marilyn in contexts she would have applauded at the end of her life (discussing philosophy with Arthur Miller, happy companion of Gable). Nonetheless, there is a faint but unmistakable prurient subtext. Even fully clothed, Marilyn is a potent erotic image, a human fetish-figure. The pop-cultural insights uncovered by the show are numerous and intriguing, but is it art or erotica? You be the judge.
Marilyn Monroe, through April 3 at Camera Obscura Gallery, 1309 Bannock Street, 623-4059. $2 admission charge.