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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

T.O.P. Ten: Number 9*

Andy Warhol [from Gene Korman], Marilyn, 1967

The Image of Woman

This is not, properly speaking, "just" a photograph. It only started out as one.

When Eugene Kornman, a.k.a. Gene Korman, took his photograph of Marilyn Monroe in 1953 as a publicity still for the film "Niagara" (left), he'd been doing stills on movie sets at least since "Scarface" more than 20 years earlier. Korman seems to have done well in Hollywood as a glamor photographer, if perhaps of the second rank—if you're interested, you can see more of his pictures online (including a much more artistically confident and stylish portrait of Monroe). Korman's daughters were child actors in the famous "Our Gang" and "Little Rascals" silent films. His younger daughter Mildred changed her name, too, just like Marilyn had—as "Ricki Van Dusen," she became of one of the top fashion models of the '50s, modeling for the likes of Irving Penn, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, John Rawlings, and Horst P. Horst (that's her on the Vogue cover.)

After Marilyn's suicide, the self-styled Pop Art superstar Andy Warhol (who was also a photographer) "used" Korman's image—I have no idea if he paid Korman or his estate for its use, or even asked for permission—to "mass-produce" (Warhol's term) an ever-changing series of silkscreens. They had numerous different combinations of fauvist-style patches of wild color over a simplified Kodalith of Monroe's face, copied, of course, from Korman's photograph. They are shown and sold as either individual silkscreens (one of which, known as "Orange Marilyn," sold for $17.3 million in 1998, which a Sotheby's spokesman called "a wise buy at the price") or as "paintings" composed of a number of the silkscreens (from two up to at least 50) grouped together.

Is the resulting artwork still at all Korman's? Is it still at all a photograph? Is it a collaboration? An unwitting or unwilling collaboration? A one-way collaboration? Was the photograph just raw material, like unformed clay? I'm a bit prickly about this, and often find myself standing up for the photograph's contribution to hybrid works of art. But I don't think it matters what we think: like it or not, it is undeniably a characteristic of photography that photographs are appropriated, copied, or adapted for an endless array of purposes by all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. At what point they stop being photographs is not a determination we can really come to. The Marilyn image(s) wouldn't be great without Warhol's admittedly larger contribution. It also wouldn't exist without Korman's smaller one.

What I like most about the Korman/Warhol Marilyns is how fantastically layered with implication they are. It's one of the two or three best-known images of perhaps the quintessential (at least in America) pop icon, yet it has no single form. Marilyn was many things—an enigma, a sex goddess, a star, almost the embodiment of the objectification of women through imagemaking. Males are by nature stimulated visually, by what Howe Gelb called, in one of his songs, "The shape of a woman / Temptation of egg." This instinct for visual attraction transfers its object readily to photographs, and male interest in pictures of women runs the gamut from the chaste admiration of innocent beauty to exploitative salaciousness. Regarding the latter, of course, it's photography's dirty little non-secret that one of the masters it serves is the porn industry. Pornography is a loaded subject almost by definition, and has been largely ignored as a photographic genre.

But here's where it gets interesting. If men's biologically programmed fate is to be attracted, women's is to attract—and so at the other end of the spectrum from straight raw grinding unadorned porn you have the rarefied imagery and impossible elegance of the fashion industry. And in between, every sort of representation of women as objects of desire: cheery girl-next-door catalogue models, swimsuit pictures, boudoir photography, Victoria's Secret ads, "nice" or artistic nudes—even, I think, a furtive subcategory of art photography that is essentially pornography disguised. And more.

Women have undoubtedly been affected by this, and not always in a good way. Neither Warhol's Marilyns nor Marilyn herself caused anything, of course, but for me the Marilyn Monroe phenomenon (remember, she was Playboy's first centerfold, against all that deep red) does mark a turning point. There have always been sex symbols. But Mae West, for one, was not even particularly beautiful—it's very difficult to imagine her as a fashion model. Consider too that most of the top fashion models in the 1950s were confident, mature women in their 30s, in contrast to, say, the waifish pseudo-adolescent "heroin chic" persona of Kate Moss. Earlier than Warhol's Marilyn in 1967, actresses with strong but not conventionally beautiful faces were still playing romantic leads in films into middle age. By the time Sports Illustrated began remaking (again) the popular fashion in female body types in its swimsuit issues, culture was being flooded by images, and more and more emphasis was being placed on looks alone.

Women were objectified before she came along, and personality and talent could trump looks after she passed away. But I think a case could be made for Marilyn being the fulcrum—let's put it that way—the axis upon which the teeter-totter teetered. A few decades later, a poster of Farrah Fawcett (right) became the best-selling wall decoration in history—during the one year she earned $5,000 an episode for the TV show "Charlie's Angels" she earned $400,000 from that poster—yet Farrah herself would later claim she "didn't like" her world-famous hair and never felt secure about her body. It was as if whoever was on the other side of the teeter-totter had jumped off.

It's gotta take real confidence—courage, even—to buck that pressure, as Jamie Lee Curtis did at age 43 when she told MORE magazine that "glam" Jamie would only pose if "real" Jamie got equal time. She didn't want forty-something women thinking she was perfect under the makeup.

Marilyn Monroe's whole self seemed dedicated to "image" virtually unto an illusion. She didn't keep the name she was born with, the color of her hair, a discernable personality, or her husbands (although Joe DiMaggio put flowers on her grave until the end of his life, and of course it's possible she would have found her personality if she'd lived long enough). She didn't even get to keep her own tribute song: Elton John wrote "Candle in the Wind" for her, but then later re-cast it for Diana, Princess of Wales. (Sorry, Norma Jean. The young man in the twenty-second row is now a gay millionaire soccer team owner…and, quite coincidentally, also a major photography collector.) But as other pinups have faded into the mists of the past, Marilyn's star still shines bright. Perhaps that has something to do with the almost alarming extent to which she subsumed herself into her image.

There is a nifty web site on which you can play around putting your own colors onto a Warhol Marilyn, to "see how the color affects the mood." Maybe it's fitting that the woman who personifies not the image of woman but rather woman-as-image should be immortalized in a flattened, simplified form and in relentless repetition, with a kaleidoscope of odd added colors transforming the "mood" of her face again and again. The simple, honest photograph alone must have been too real. It was certainly way too plain.


* The T.O.P. Ten countdown continues every Tuesday.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, this is one of your best articles so far. And I´m not a particular MM fan.
Keep up the good work.

3:47 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Excellent! So well done I read it twice.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Yvonne said...

Mike: Enjoyed your essay. Thanks too for being sensitive to the entire woman as object business and photography's role in that.

Excellent blog. I enjoy your writing, and you're constantly expanding my photographic universe.

7:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, I think it's great that you climbed out on a limb, figuratively speaking. I don't agree with this inclusion, but I understand your winnowing process. Keep going.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Peter Forsgard said...

This is a very interesting series. I am looking forward to see what the #8 and so on will bring us...

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If art is born of the detritus of pop iconography then Warhol was a dumpster-diver extraordinaire, unable to compete with the totemic solemnity of his contemporaries and therefore bound for the role of destroyer and iconoclast, agitprop for an unapologetic irony and self-consciousness that dulls us to this day. As an object of socio-anthropological enquiry, Marilyn, 1967 delivers plenty of dissertative potential but fails to stir one beyond this enquiry without conjuring up it's leaden "significance". Kant's invocation of disinterest is AWOL here. Not that it matters much. Beauty for its own sake can sometimes be just as dull. Here though, aesthetics has seemingly been trumped by "culture-centrism" and the unbridled bliss of unspooling a decent rationale. This T.O.P. ten is beginning to look like the contents of an old cigar box - a refreshing substitute for a rusty canon.


10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK your 1 for 2. Warhol is merely pop kitch. Should not even be considered here.

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This in the top 10? Ridiculous. It's iconic for sure but in the TOP 10? No way...

12:51 PM  
Blogger Jim Natale said...

That picture is, without a doubt, quite a clever way to introduce a very good essay. Now, no kidding, what's the 9th greatest photograph of all time? For this installment, somehow it feels as if you began with a conclusion and worked backward to a starting point. For that matter, there's no been no definition (or even vague guidelines) offered regarding photographic greatness. Most famous? Best selling? Most influential? Socially significant? Technically important? Most affective? Sure the criteria will be subjective, but that's exactly why it's important to include some mention of what selection process is being used. Come to think of it, why was #9 ranked higher than #10?

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Wilhelm said...

For better or for worse, much original, even seminal, artwork often becomes dated, and is interesting only in a historical context. Begging the question of whether it is really photography or not, this is such a piece. What was once clever and probably difficult to do, now looks like the work of someone learning to use Photoshop, playing with all of the filters, and layers, and other gizmos. But Mike's article is good, even if his choice isn't.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Dibutil Ftalat said...

Very educating. I ran all names through Google's image seearch - very interesting ;-)

4:19 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Uh-oh. Some of you guys are REALLY not going to like #6.

Jim Natale, great point, but the thing is, I hope the list itself will end up being the best way to "define" the parameters of selection. Lists like this, though great fun, are completely pointless AS LISTS. I mean, unless there's a cash prize attached or something. Which there isn't in this case. As I hope I don't have to point out. Anyway, getting people (including me) thinking and looking and questioning and so forth is the only real point of an exercise like this. Nurturing agreement is not a high priority with me. I've learned at least as much in my life from "authorities" I've disagreed with as those I've agreed with.

Blair, I actually understood that, so, well said (although you do realize, don't you, that we don't allow no artspeak 'round here (g)), but I think your brief-but-eloquent argument turns on the phrase "fails to stir one"...which is after all just a way of saying it doesn't stir YOU...which is of course fine, but not decisive.

Glad to hear from you Elisabeth, and thanks for the nice compliment. Expanding universes will figure later on in the countdown I think....

I know this list is not the most popular of the features on this blog (more people read the little post about megapixels), so thanks to those who read it for reading.


6:43 PM  
Anonymous Gordon said...

I find it really interesting. I'm sure I'll disagree with more than 50% of the pics picked, but isn't that largely the point ? :) On the way I'm bound to learn more about what I like or don't like and maybe even why.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Franck said...

This is a great article and a great series Mike. This is certainly opening new doors to me and is as Elizabeth said perfectly "constantly expanding my photographic universe".

3:29 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

This is an outstanding article. I was fishing around the web for information about the original Marilyn photographer, because I had questions that your article answered. Thanks!

10:21 AM  
Blogger JAM said...

Someone paid $17Million for one of Warhol's Monroe screens? Jeesh. I'm in the wrong business. That's almost as bad as the cans of the guy's crap that was on this blog recently. There's no plumbing the depths of human stupidity.

Warhol used this photo like rap star's "sample" other people's music. And just as Vanilla Ice's rip-off of the Queen/David Bowie "Under Pressure" song sucked, I just don't understand the fascination with Warhol's rip-off.

Then again, I grew up in and attended public school in Louisiana, so what do I know.

Mike, your articles are as good as any photography mag I've read over the years. I love reading this blog. I really do.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I think part of the reason portraits of Marylin's are so iconic, so of their age, is that she died young and we have no "current" Marylin to distract us from the popular image she created in the public mind. Ditto images of Kennedy, King and others who had the culture's hopes, fears, dreams and desires mapped onto them. But Worhol's image certainly takes things a farther than than the original photograph and adds an ironic twist, I think. Interesting idea for a column.

7:56 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

No current Marilyn? What about Paris Hilton? Beautiful, intelligent, iconic, personable, powerful, mysterious, talented...

I must have been asleep in class when this article was first posted. Good thoughts there. I've blogged it. Twice, sort of.

2:18 PM  

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