Whose face is it anyway?

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Helen James is dazzled by the most famous star of all,seen in a photography show at the National Portrait Gallery

Just six weeks before Marilyn Monroe's life ended in suicide, she undertook a mammoth photographic session with Bert Stern. Known as "the last sitting", the studio-based shoot produced more than 2,600 images - a wide range of pictures that brilliantly capitalised on her natural charisma in front of the camera. Many of the photographs from the last sitting have circulated the globe to become iconic images.

This particular shot powerfully underlines Marilyn's status as an attractive and desirable woman. She looks provocative: unclothed, with heavy make-up and a softened expression, she is gently chewing her necklace rather than wearing it. But we also can't help noticing how the image is overlaid with a yellowing cross, suggesting there is more here than meets the eye.

How much of this is down to Bert Stern? Many photographers, such as the American photojournalist Eve Arnold, have described Marilyn Monroe as having "a special relationship with the camera"; perhaps with the still camera even more than the movie camera. This raises interesting questions about the relationship between photographer and sitter, especially in the case of celebrity photography. Where does the creativity lie? In the making of a photograph or the presenting of an image? Who, ultimately, is in control of producing an image?

Marilyn was intensely aware of the powerful influence of the still photographic image, and she capitalised on this by attempting to control the use of her own photographic image. This invites us to examine the photographic act more closely and to think of it as a collaboration, prompting us to become more intrigued by how a celebrity such as Marilyn Monroe can play a role in her own history.

This particular image was one that Marilyn did not want released. It was one of many that she scarred, apparently to try to prevent its circulation.

Paradoxically, by doing so she awakened our curiosity. She didn't realise that, by using a hairpin to scratch the transparency and sticky-tape to cross through the image, she would draw attention to it.

In the short time between the photo shoot and her death, Marilyn's wishes were almost certainly respected. But it was only a matter of time before attitudes (and technology) changed the use of such images. The continued existence of the transparency, together with the growing public desire for the unfamiliar or hidden moments of celebrity life (aided by the widespread use of the 35mm SLR camera) ensured that her wishes would eventually be disregarded, perhaps to the delight of Bert Stern, who disagreed with some of her editorial choices.

With more than 40 years passed since her death in 1962, raising objections to the circulation of this image might seem churlish. And with the development of an obsessive world-wide interest in celebrity culture, this means we can now see this image in an exhibition: the World's Most Photographed - suggesting the time is right to present unseen, hidden or forgotten celebrity images.

Why is there such popular desire to view unseen images? Given that the last sitting produced more than 2,600 photographs, there can only be a slight difference between each. The image is not even compromising or revelatory, especially as the shoot took place in the controlled space of a photographic studio. We can only speculate why Marilyn did not like this particular picture. All of us edit images of ourselves: a flip through a photographic envelope or the viewing of an index print allows us to reject an image we dislike.

The tiny details that are captured in a photographic moment arrange themselves in a kaleidoscope of possibilities from which the photographer, and ultimately the editor, must choose. Unlike many contemporary celebrity images that have been snatched or stolen and which compromise or humiliate a subject, it is hard to understand the reasons behind this image's unpopularity with its subject. It presents no information that we couldn't easily have gained from other published images. Perhaps it was simply one too many, or Marilyn considered the expression "off key".

Which brings us back to the question of who should have most control over the dissemination of an image: sitter or photographer? Stern certainly respected Marilyn's opinion, but his work can now be viewed in its entirety without her influence. We might suggest that the curator or historian is the most important person in deciding which images are fit for us to view, whether we like it or not.

Helen James is photography programmes manager at the National Portrait Gallery and a part-time lecturer at London South Bank University Noa-5 lThe World's Most Photographed is a collaboration between the BBC and the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition runs until October 23 at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London, WC2H.

lThe World's Most Photographed, by Robin Muir, accompanies the exhibition (National Portrait Gallery pound;20). lA conference, Photography and Celebrity, will take place on October 21, featuring presentations by critics, media professionals and photographers (pound;25pound;15 concessions). Organised in association with the University of Westminster.


Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting, by Bert Stern, Schirmer pound;29.95 www.bertstern.com

Bert Stern b 1930

Bert Stern lives and works in New York as a fashion and celebrity photographer. He is most famous for taking a series of more than 2,600 pictures of Marilyn Monroe in three days for Vogue in 1962, which became known as "the last sitting". In 1992, Stern published the entire series of photographs in a book, Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting

Lesson ideas



Using pictures of Marilyn Monroe (film stills, magazine covers, Warhol prints) ask pupils to work out who Marilyn Monroe was. Ask them to look for clues that reveal why she was famous, what country she was from, and when she lived.


Ask pupils to look for images of Marilyn Monroe on the internet or in the library. Encourage them to find images produced for different purposes - eg publicity, film stills, magazines. Ask them to devise categories for sorting images, discussing different uses for pictures of famous people.


Ask the class to read reviews of the exhibition the World's Most Photographed. Drawing on their understanding of the exhibition's critical reception, set a short essay on the use of unseen, forgotten or hidden pictures in an exhibition in a national institution.



Using this photograph of Marilyn Monroe by Bert Stern, ask the class to discuss whether there should be laws to protect people from having their image used without their permission.

Work in groups to find examples of cases where the failure to seek a subject's consent has resulted in legal problems for a newspaper or photographer.

Do famous people have more or less rights to their image than ordinary people?

What moral issues does exhibiting this photograph raise?

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