Two women—a superstar perched perfectly still during a studio photo shoot, centered against a white seamless, as the second figure walks into the frame, the edge of the backdrop bisecting her head and torso. Each is holding a prop (an attribute?) that underscores their roles. One needs no introduction, while the other is photographer Eve Arnold, who spent two months on the set of The Misfits, Marilyn’s final film and their last session together.
I love Jaime Permuth’s astute reading of the image: “My first response is to the caption which accompanies the image. If this is Marilyn during the filming of The Misfits and the copyright of the image is ascribed to Eve Arnold, then who is the third woman holding the camera? If she is indeed the photographer Eve Arnold herself, then she has set up a second camera somewhere on set and has executed, of all things, a self-portrait with Marilyn.” He continues, “Another possibility: there is more than one photographer on set observing the interaction between the two women.”
Is there a third woman, as Jaime speculates? It’s interesting to think that the third player might have been a woman, someone who was in on the set up. Or was it a man? Either assumption is plausible, as several still photographers had been hired through the picture agency Magnum Photos to document the film. Among them, in addition to Arnold, were such highly regarded names as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Inge Morath, Ernst Haas, Cornell Capa, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt. To me it looks as if this picture could indeed be a staged self-portrait. Arnold could have been holding a shutter release to a tripod mounted camera off frame in her right hand, which is blurry and presumably in motion.
Some digging reveals that the image is, in fact, attributed to Dick Rowan, whom Arnold refers to as the caption writer in her book Marilyn Monroe, An Appreciation (1987). While Rowan was not a Magnum photographer, Arnold states that he was there for the duration of the film and that he “was responsible for getting the proof sheets of the pictures approved (the principal actors had written into their contracts the right to ‘kill’ photographs they didn’t like).” So, it’s two women, looking at one another in the midst of a studio shoot, being observed by an unseen third party and, by extension, all of us.
Marvin Heiferman notes Arnold’s insightful comment: “Our ‘quid pro quo’ relationship, based on mutual advantage, developed into a friendship. The bond between us was photography. She liked my pictures and was canny enough to realize that they were a fresh approach for presenting her—a looser, more intimate look than the posed studio portraits she was used to in Hollywood.”
In a highly charged era of gender inequity, on a film set itself highly charged by the predominantly male, celebrity lineup that included Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and Eli Wallach, this picture perfectly captures the collaborative, intimate, trusting, and playful rapport between Arnold and her subject. Ultimately, it’s a brilliant image that plays on photography’s ever-present power to conceal and persuade.
This essay was originally published by the Hillman Photography Initiative at Carnegie Museum of Art, which investigates the life cycle of images: their creation, transmission, consumption, storage, potential loss, and reemergence. For more on the Initiative and to offer public commentary on this image, click here.