Sunday Special: My Favourite Photo

I’ve been a photographer for a long time and worked in a photo lab for a good 7 or 8 years. Consequently I have seen a lot of photographs in my short life and it takes something to really make me love a photograph. I confess to loving Black and White more than colour (because I’m a ponce) but any ‘brand’ of photo can catch my eye. There is one photo in particular I keep coming back to lately however that really caught my attention and I frequently return to. I am seriously tempted to name it as my favourite and I want to talk about why. Because I’m like that. Anyway, here it is:

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That’s Marilyn Monroe reading modernist author James Joyce’s Ulysses on a merry-go-round on a summer’s evening. In case that description alone doesn’t do it for you I shall elaborate why I love this photo in particular. There are a great deal of frankly beautiful photos of Marilyn Monroe reading but this one has a special place in my heart for numerous reasons:

  • Monroe and the epoch

On a purely personal level Monroe, along with maybe Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch, is probably my favourite female personality of note. Not only is she honestly one of the most beautiful but she is also one of the most complex. In the same way Sylvia Plath invites nothing but the closest scrutiny of her personal life in spite of her truly amazing talent, Monroe was actually an incredibly gifted actress, essentially performing a character as her ‘real-life’ persona. Seven Year Itch is a performance of rare self-awareness for someone frequently depicted as a “dumb blonde” (she was, of course, a natural brunette). I wish I could be all non-Male Gaze about this but the fact is Monroe is just seriously hot. She has a great figure, cute-as-a-button features and her confidence made her almost literally glow. This photo captures that in more ways than I can put my finger on. To me Marilyn is at her most gorgeous when she is not playing to camera or smiling (as are most people) and this photo is the best example of that. She seems genuinely engrossed in the book. I am not naive enough to think the photos of her reading were not cynically manipulative marketing of Norma’s persona as The Great Marilyn but it is also pretty dumb to assume she didn’t enjoy to read at all or that she was not enjoying said literature. I am also a man who wishes he had lived in the 50’s & 60’s. I love everything about these decades, even the politics, as it seems does everyone else. This photo screams 1955 and for that alone I love it. Put in the most beautiful and remarkable woman of that decade and you have a photo I cannot help but like.

  • The Book

I am an advocate of the Modernist Movement in general (much preferable to the tedious and worn out post-modernism we seem unable to shake) and few people seem to sum up its ideology more than Joyce and Eliot. Personally I don’t care for Joyce and think Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are intractable messes of novels meant for analysts not casual readers but they are undoubtedly incredible achievements in literature that justly deserve their place in the ‘Great Works’. Knowledge of and opinion on this is perceived as okay for someone who wants to be a writer, or an academic, or someone ‘well read’ but surely it comes across as (my most loathed word) pretentious most of the time and surely when being read by a model in a shoot. I don’t agree. Its a book at the end of the day and should therefore be read by anybody of any class, colour, sex, creed or nation that wants to read it. Marilyn unlike some other photos seems to have honestly forgotten about the shoot and Eve Arnold and is engrossed in the bizarre stream of consciousness flowing out of the book. Not only all that, why Ulysses? It was thirty years old by then and probably still not *that* widely known – certainly not as well known as Monroe – to make the audience think of her more seriously. Why not read Lolita that had come out that year if you wanted to seem more ‘intelligent’ through what you are reading? More relevant, often considered amongst other Modernist tomes like Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover and more controversial and therefore better known. Or why not Waiting for Godot? or Fahrenheit 451? Call me innocent if you like, I honestly think this was Monroe’s copy and was not a prop used by Norma for Marilyn’s development. Eve Arnold (the photographer) says this is the case, that Monroe found it tough to read but enjoyed it nonetheless, occasionally reading it aloud to help her understanding (something that is demanded of it by the learned readers of Modernist literature and poetry at large). Either way it gives massive depth to the shot but probably not in the cynical way marketing people may now consider.

  • Eve Arnold and Technique

Arnold (who sadly passed away last year) was one of the Grand Dames of photography and photographed everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to Malcolm X, an early Magnum photographer too. Her most notable work is that of her shoots with Monroe. Understandably. Arnold’s style is my favourite kind. Non-flash, candid, almost voyeuristic framing and capture. This photo is a standout however of this form and an exemplar of technical proficiency. I haven’t looked too hard into what gear Arnold used I can only assume it was little SLR or a rangefinder such as a Leica (this is my best guess as the light gathering is perfect). I’d imagine a 50mm lens too judging by frame and distance. She’s got the aperture wide open which means a shallow depth of field which she has gauged with scientific precision. Focus point is on the book, a hairs breadth in front of her face softening her features wonderfully. That kind of skill and perception is no accident but probably wasn’t thought about, just a natural eye and instinct great photographers develop over time. The shutter speed is dead on, slow enough for a bit of exposure and bleed in that all-too-gorgeous summer evening light but quick enough to hold Monroe in position and not smudge. Her hair is caught in a gust making it blur slightly adding to the ‘in the moment’ feel it has, making you feel like you have stumbled on a home shot, family album picture not a considered and posed model shoot. She has also picked a spot just out of direct sunlight but with enough diffusion to give Marilyn’s skin highlights without blowing them out. All this probably done in the blink of an eye or without too much thought, just a master photographer who knows her trade at the top of her game.

  • Colour

More than anything else this is probably the most integral factor of this photo and my favourite aspect. From the darkness of the tree’s shadow on the floor and Marilyn’s feet to the hazy bleached gold blur of the trees in the background via the verdant greens of the trees and the almost edible tones of Monroe’s skin this photo is a fountain of pigment. Not garish or too wide a palette nor too muted or restrained, it is neither real nor unreal merely that glorious Technicolor that had suddenly become the flavour of the time. Just look at the sumptuous gold and green of the background, there’s an instant Proustian rush of being in the garden late into the summer evenings caught in that same light. The peculiar peeling rust of the merry-go-round that is both bright blue and orange that is at once odd but equally beautifully matches the overall tonal range. Monroe herself with her immaculate tanned skin that people so desperately try to bottle and sell in this day and age yet never somehow get that rich feminine look, is like a slightly garish oil painting. And then there’s that top. Typical of the era and Norma’s considered wardrobe for her Marilyn it not only fits her perfectly but is what artists call an ‘offset’ where you use the pure derivations of the colours from the palette you use. As such, it seems the colours of the world around Marilyn seem to swim out from this item of clothing making her the arresting central focus of the shot without overpowering it. All in all it is, as the saying goes, a feast for the eyes.

  • Outside the frame

Context and a bit of research reveal Monroe was already a massive star at this point after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and other roles but equally controversial after 20th century fox suspended her and her undoubted confrontational sexuality that pressed against the societal acceptance of the 50s. Monroe was, as she still is to this day, a divisive and intriguing character played out in front of the camera. What is so wonderful about this photo is that whilst it retains the bright glamour of gaudy hollywood, it incorporates a more homely, less showy image that was becoming more the norm of the period. More than this for me however is the unconscious ‘crack’ in it. On top of it being an expert actress acknowledging her role and performing perfectly and the master photographer at the top of her game employing considerable skill in capturing the moment it is the stripping of the veneer it creates that I love so much. Arnold speaks of a collaboration between the model and herself on any shoot so this was undoubtedly staged with great care but its the underlying nature of this that is so fascinating. Why that time of day? The light, obviously. Why the playground? She’s fun, childish, happy go lucky. Why the woods? Natural beauty, surely. Why the top? Fashionable and bright, like Marilyn. Why Ulysees? She had it in her car, it made her look clever, duh. I don’t buy it. Look at Eve’s other photos of Marilyn (there’s a link further up), a wholly more considered range is present. In all the other shots they lack one vital thing. Movement. I am 90% certain this was taken in haste and probably a chance shot. Consider these other shots from the same shoot. All are immaculately captured pictures that say almost the same thing. But there is too much going on in this photo. The background is not merely out of focus it has a slight hint of motion blur, as does Monroe’s hair and hand. Was the carousel turning? Had Arnold been fiddling for a while, allowing Monroe to take a back seat while Norma read her book? I am probably reading too much into the Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe duality but that’s because the photo presents such a exciting argument as to who the photo is of and who is reading this complex and challenging novel. And on top of all that its just So. Damn. Pretty.

In short, I’m a sucker for a curvy gorgeous woman reading an interesting book in a pretty top on a summer evening. This style of down-home, earthy, summer, nature-style portrait photography has very much become the norm for publicity shoots (mainly for electronics ads with a Nu-Folk soundtrack) these days and there’s even a couple of Instagram filters that do much the same thing (the ones I use the most, incidentally) so this photograph and its ilk are probably responsible for the ‘Pernicious Legacy’ I am wont to bang on about at length, but for me personally it is an absolute classic of photography, perfectly taken of a beautiful and interesting character in a magical frame. One of the best uses of celluloid I’ve ever seen. I can only dream of creating such a dream-like and incisive photo in the future.

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