The Title of This Photograph Is Marilyn Monroe, Actress, New York City, May 6, 1957

Photo: Copyright 1957 The Richard Avedon Foundation

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.

Photo: Valérie Belin

Belin’s work often locates her subjects between living being and inanimate figure. Here, a Lido showgirl “has about the same pose, but the Marilyn and the picture are made from something iconic and false.”

Styling by Monique Bean; Hair by Philip Carreon for the Wall Group; Makeup by Sammy Mourabit for Magnet LAPhoto: Pej Behdarvand

Known for photographing her large-scale nude group performances, Beecroft was “about to travel to Khartoum, and all I wanted to see was a Marilyn from the Sudan: a Sudanese refugee. So we looked for a south Sudanese model. She may have been under some stress trying to reproduce Marilyn’s expression. That was not easy.”

Pamela Anderson

“Pamela Anderson is, in some ways, the anti–Marilyn Monroe,” says the hyperrealist painter and photographer. “She’s in control of her own destiny. She puts the mask on when she needs it—she doesn’t even wear makeup! I did the pink nails.”

“It’s my favorite photograph!” says Muniz, whose work often incorporates strange materials (jelly, thread, Bosco). “And the credits of The Misfits, one of my favorite movies, use puzzle pieces. This uses ten puzzles, with the image rotated at odd angles—like 37 degrees, 48 degrees, clockwise, and counterclockwise— relating the material and the idea.”

Like many of Baldessari’s recent works of subtraction, Marilyn Monroe: Partially Erased is “about disturbing the hierarchy of vision: You usually look at the face first, and if you’re blocked out, you’re going to look at other things—the way they’re standing, like that. [But] the mole would be there. She never had it removed, so I didn’t either.”

The Title of This Photograph Is Marilyn Monroe, A […]