RICHARD AVEDON (1923–2004)
“There was no such person as Marilyn Monroe … [She was] invented, like an author creates a character.”
Today, we all know the backstory: Tragic, beautiful Marilyn, doomed by a swirl of drugs and bad men and her wrecked sense of self. But precisely 50 years ago, at Richard Avedon’s studio on Madison Avenue, she could still step into the breathy-blonde persona. “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s—she did Marilyn Monroe,” Avedon said later, adding that the white wine helped things along. “Then there was the inevitable drop … she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone.” And he clicked his shutter once more. “I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.” The resultant final frame is among the most famous portraits ever made—one that is, as the photographer Vik Muniz neatly put it, “a picture of Norma Jean, not Marilyn.” It contains what Roland Barthes, praising Avedon, called “the evidence that, within the image, there is always something else.” For the portrait’s anniversary, New York asked contemporary photographers, including Muniz, to rethink Avedon’s Marilyn. Some did so literally, adding their own manipulations. Others chose to rephotograph it, using contemporary models, including Pamela Anderson, whose career arc takes a weird postmodern carom off Marilyn’s. Even her reflections, a half-century on, have power.