‘Every encounter to her was a performance’, wrote photographer Eve Arnold about her sessions with Marilyn Monroe. She had met Monroe at a party of film director John Huston, and would photograph her on six occasions, over the course of ten years. Arnold’s photographs of Marlene Dietrich, published in Esquire, had convinced Monroe to have herself portrayed by Arnold as well, allegedly having said: ‘If you could do that well with Marlene, can you imagine what you can do with me?’
This photograph of Monroe at the casino is one in a series taken on the last day of filming The Misfits. For two months Arnold photographed Monroe on a daily basis, ‘up close and personal.’ On the left in the background we see Monroe’s husband Arthur Miller, fervent gambler and the script writer for The Misfits. Days after this photograph was taken Monroe announced their divorce.
The Misfits would be Monroe’s last film performance. Less than two years later she died at the age of 36. In light of this knowledge the photograph of Monroe, sunk in thought at the gambling table, becomes symbolic, iconic even, for the tragedy that would follow. Yet in other photographs from the same series we see her cheerfully tossing the dice, smiling radiantly at John Huston who was also standing at the table in the background.
As powerful as one striking image can be, seeing it as part of a photographic series can unexpectedly alter the story we thought we were being told. On the one hand, the alternation between pensive poses and theatricality can be argued to capture Monroe’s volatile state of mind. Yet the image sequence also illustrates how she molded her public image through the camera. This being the high tide of photographically illustrated magazines, that preceded the televised celebrity, photography was the prime medium to invent and exploit a public image.
Monroe was well aware of this fact, judging from her remark about Arnold’s photographs of Marlene Dietrich. She featured on four covers of the popular magazine Life, the first one in 1952. Eve Arnold was no stranger to the popular fascination for glitter and glamour either; she regularly photographed celebrities. Her photographs of Monroe were commissioned by the photo agency Magnum, who had the exclusive right to produce stills from The Misfits. Photography was booming business, illustrated by the fact that besides Arnold a legion of famous photographers was set to the task: Cornell Capa, Bruce Davidson, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Erich Hartmann, Inge Morath, Dennis Stock and Ernest Haas covered the production.
Given their photographs were taken both on and off the set, and for documentary as well as promotional purposes, it is hard to distinguish between fact and film. Even off the set, Monroe continued to act out her public persona in front of the photo camera. Arnold was searching for ‘a looser, more intimate look’, but as close as she got, there was always a camera to mediate the image.