Bert Stern’s pictures of Marilyn Monroe, now known as “The Last Sitting”, are some of the most memorable images depicting the actress. Stern’s sensuous and intimate portraits, brought the American public closer to the star and established Monroe’s position in American culture as the fabled figure of femininity, fame, mystery, and tragedy.
By the time of the shoot, Bert Stern had already developed a name for himself as a fashion and advertisement superstar photographer. Born to a “medium-poor Brooklyn family”, he worked as a Vogue photographer, and stood out through an inventive and audacious approach towards his work; For a Smirnoff Vodka ad campaign, he traveled to Egypt and shot what would become a highly successful commercial image of the ‘The Driest of the Dry’ Martini.
By 1962, Stern had mustered up the courage and clout to realize a project he had long sought after. Stern’s studio contacted Marilyn Monroe and she agreed to do a shoot with the photographer. After the approval of Vogue magazine, the photo shoot would take place at the “most secluded, private, beautiful hotel in L.A.” The Bel-Air Hotel.
“I was going to photograph Marilyn Monroe. All I had to do was figure out how to get what I wanted: pure Marilyn, nude. But I didn’t know how to approach her with that idea… Maybe the only way I was going to get it was through illusion: screens, veils. So, I went to Vogue and said, “Can you get me some scarves? Scarves you can see through – with geometrics. And jewelry.” Jewelry doesn’t need too many clothes, right?”
The photo shoot is the culmination of a fantasy and a love affair. Bert Stern had idolized Marilyn Monroe since he met her at a party for the Actor’s Studio in 1955. He now finally had the opportunity to photograph Monroe and so great was his infatuation with the actress, that he referred to setting up his photo shoot as “preparing for Marilyn’s arrival like a lover, and yet I was here to take photographs. Not to take her into my arms, but to turn her into tones…”. In his brilliantly revealing images, Stern camouflages his desire behind the camera, bestowing the viewer with the same power of admiration and focus as the photographer, while bringing the viewer there with him, into that moment. The intimacy in the photographs curtails the separation between the celebrity and the person; in this penetrating and self-indulgent shoot, the viewer gets a closer, more authentic, and liberating notion of the woman behind the lens. Monroe’s playful, inviting, and gracious posture flirts with the longing gaze of the photographer, presenting the exclusive and compassionate attention of a lover. The resultant images capture a potent but fleeting imaginary love affair, this time fortuitously caught on film by Stern.
In Marilyn Monroe Nude on a Bed, Stern captures the sensuality and vulnerability that slowly developed in the collaborative and spontaneous session with Monroe. The atmospheric warmth and inviting sensual undertones are present as well as a returning gaze from Monroe, alluding to the reclining nude canon of Manet’s Olympia and Titian’s Venus of Urbino; once again establishing Marilyn Monroe as the definitive epochal figurehead of the transformative, alluring, and natural sex symbol.
Bert Stern’s daring attitude in creating a unique Vogue spread combined with his adoration for the actress produced fantastic images that served more so as poetic offerings to the concept of love and the power of a muse, leaving both photographer and viewer transfixed by Monroe’s unequivocal beauty.
Perhaps synchronicity is also at play with the images; in this candid and sensuous portrayal of the actress, the viewer gets to cherish her work one final time before Monroe’s untimely demise.
“I’ve always loved women. I think being a woman must be very difficult. After all, you’re always on the inside. Men look at the outside. It’s that illusion which is so delicious. Once you break that mask, then you enter another world.”