Who Shot Marilyn? Photography and Andy Warhol's Silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe
The creative in photography is its capitulation to fashion. ‘The world is beautiful’ – this precisely is its motto. In it is unmasked the posture of a photography that can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists…
Walter Benjamin — Little History of Photography
The world itself has taken on a ‘photographic face;’ what photographs by their sheer accumulation attempt to banish is the recollection of death, which is part and parcel of every memory-image…the world has become a photographable present, and the photographed present has been entirely eternalized. Seemingly ripped from the clutches of death, in reality it has succumbed to it all the more.
Siegfried Kracauer — Photography (1927)
The short answer to who shot Marilyn Monroe is that the original photograph used by Andy Warhol was shot by Eugene Kornman, a.k.a. Gene Korman, a photographer who worked for the publicity department at 20th Century Fox. Korman was a veteran from the early days of the studio system during its silent period beginning to do stills in 1922 for the popular Our Gang shorts. The photograph of Monroe was taken as part of the advertising campaign for the film Niagara (1953) by director Henry Hathaway and writer Charles Brackett, who also wrote Sunset Boulevard (1950). Niagara’s plot featured Monroe as a femme-fatale who is married to an older man whom she plots to kill on their vacation to Niagara Falls, but things do not go as planned. This paint by numbers plot is redeemed by its cinematography - the film is brilliantly shot in high contrast, saturated three-strip Technicolor to great effect by Joseph McDonald. The longer answer to who shot Marilyn can be put in the form of a two part question: Is the original photograph taken by Korman already a work of art, or is it merely a one-dimensional work of studio craftsmanship, and what did Andy Warhol do conceptually to that photograph that makes it one of the most remarkable, recognizable, and iconic works of art of the 20th century?
Let’s begin with the original image. The photograph is not intrinsically a picture of Marilyn Monroe, and that is where the difficulties, and the interesting entanglements, begin. It is a publicity photograph for Niagara, and as in any publicity image tailored to advertise a film, then and now, the actress is playing a role. In this particular case she is playing a character named Rose Loomis, a woman who plots to kill her husband in the traditional location for honeymooning couples. She is dressed as in the film, her hair is done like the character, and the expression on her face registers as recognizably in character. The photograph is also a picture of Marilyn Monroe, the actress, who in 1953 was twenty-seven and on the cusp of world-wide fame, as well as a picture of Norma Jeane Mortenson, who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in various foster homes throughout the city during the depression. It was while working in a factory in 1944 that she met a photographer and began a modeling career that started the journey to Niagara. Norma Jeane slowly developed a character named Marilyn Monroe from her own intuitive insights regarding available models of female beauty in her time, working within the studio system, even when she was not yet literally a part of it. Marilyn was her creation, and it was very much a work in progress.
Anthony Summers: “Marilyn would appear (at the Actor’s Studio) in baggy sweater and jeans, without makeup, and seek out the most obscure place in the room. Actor Kevin McCarthy hardly noticed her at first, as they sat side-by-side watching a badly acted scene from Chekhov’s Three Sisters. When he did recognize her, he observed Marilyn’s disconcerting ability to switch her Monroe persona “off’ to “on”… In the street heads would turn to stare or ogle whereas a moment before everyone had passed her by. “I just felt like being Marilyn for a moment,” Marilyn would murmur.” As we can see from this anecdote she created a character and a method to her personae that was a performance instigated at will.
Richard Avedon described her process of looking at images critically: “Her ideas were always dominated by what she felt her public image should be. She would pore over the contact sheets for hours. She was always looking for what she called an ‘honest’ picture, a ‘real’ or ‘right’ picture.” Like any artist, she was also influenced by the work of previous artists in her field, particularly Betty Page, Clara Bow, Carole Lombard, and Rita Hayworth, who had all created unique characters that became recognizable, iconic, and perhaps most importantly, in demand, so they could market their creations in the film industry with a certain amount of input and power. There would then ensue a psychologically complex collaboration between the studio and the artists. This was a relationship that was often troubled, debilitating, and destructive for the actor, who was forced into recognizable types that were simplistic but commercially viable – a situation that persists to this day. In rare times this collaboration would result in work that was successful on all fronts, as was the case with Marlene Dietrich’s collaborations with Josef von Sternberg.
Norma Jeane worked on Marilyn, but it was not a solitary artist’s creation happening in isolation. Rather, it was a process that required the input of creative people sympathetic to Monroe’s search for what she herself described as the “right picture.” The assumption that the vital visual vocabulary of Monroe’s persona was created by men in the studio system (even geniuses such as Billy Wilder), while she was a passive vehicle for male projections of female sexuality is a long accepted rhetorical strategy that is out of date. The creation of Marilyn was messy and at times transparently awkward, despite careful calculation by the studio system. It is that deliberate rawness of Marilyn improvising her creation that continues to be fascinating. Her films are, in one sense, documentaries of Norma Jeane creating Marilyn with her fellow actors as accomplices. In Billy Wilder’s work, T. S. Eliot’s “police in different voices” find themselves manifested in mid-20th century America, not as an academic cry of despair at modernity, as in Eliot’s work, but as a raucous cry of sensual delight in the presence of Marilyn. Yet the construction of “Marilyn” was by no means perfect. For that, we would have to look at Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933), where the personae and the person have fused perfectly together into an inscrutable mask. Unlike Garbo, Marilyn was modern: that is she was a self-created ongoing project that was existentially open-ended. As in jazz improvisation or abstract expressionist painting (both contemporaneous with her major output in film), the process of creating a character – including the missteps - were a part of the journey and contributed substantially to its construction and its final emotional effect as a finished work.
There are three distinct voices in the photograph: Norma Jeane’s as she plays Marilyn, Marilyn’s as she plays Rose Loomis, and Gene Korman’s as he uses the conventions of glamour photography in 1953 that, in a pedestrian manner, attempt to mimic the film’s high contrast lighting and glossy texture. From this assessment, we can surmise that the true creative genesis of this photograph does not belong to the photographer but to the subject, Norma Jeane, as she creates two characters simultaneously and fleshes them out so brilliantly that it appears nothing is being photographed but a young woman in an evening dress. Korman’s photograph is highly complex in terms of its content, but formally, it conforms to the traditional aesthetics of studio glamour photography from the period, well within the conventions set in place by the studios that were in the business of manufacturing entertainment and marketing personalities. All we need to do to see the limitations of Korman’s photograph is to look at Richard Avedon’s brilliant image made in 1957 of the actress, also in an evening dress, lost in thought, or perhaps preparing to step into “Marilyn.” The studio system had little time for such delicate matters, sometimes called art, found in Avedon’s photograph. They called themselves - then and now - an “entertainment industry” and they had the formula down. Put simply it was, as Norman Mailer quotes Daryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox through the postwar years: “Make good shit.”
Significantly the Marilyn Silkscreens were, for Warhol, part of his series on Death in America that included the image of an electric chair used for state- sanctioned executions, and photographs taken by photojournalists of car accident victims, race riots and suicides. Margery King: “In a 1967 interview, Warhol… drew the connection between his paintings of Monroe and those on the subject of death. ‘The Monroe picture was part of a death series I was doing, of people who had died by different ways. There was no profound reason for doing a death series, no victims of their time; there was no reason for doing it at all, just a surface reason’.” The attention to the surface and the formal qualities of the work, and the dismissal of any “profound” reason for doing it, is clarified further in an interview by G.R. Swenson from 1963:
“Why did you start with the Death Series?
“I guess it was the big plane crash picture, the front page of the newspaper: ‘129 Die’. I was also painting the Marilyn’s. I realized that everything I was doing must have been death… But when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect”. Of course if the pictures had no affect, why would Warhol bother to turn the images into silk-screens and paint them several times over, in some cases with hundreds of variants, using bright primary colors more typically associated at the time with advertising? If his reasons were, as he stated, purely “a surface reason” why choose race riots, suicides, inmates being detained in mental hospitals, and electric chairs? Clearly the images had specific meanings, being very much products of their time - in many cases taken from news magazines covering contemporary social/news events - producing an intense emotional charge that was subsequently clarified or made explicit in the paintings – but what was it?
John Coplans: “Warhol uses public pictures of people… he avoids candid snapshots that reveal private or idiosyncratic information about the persons concerned. His portraits are forthright, but of people wearing composed faces. The pictures are neither reworked nor touched up. What one finally must confront is the paradox that however correct its likeness, a picture never tells the truth… Warhol’s portraits transmit nothing of the inner psychic tensions of the persons portrayed. They are always dehumanized by never reflecting what they feel. Thus Warhol dehumanizes people and humanizes soup cans.” What Copland assumes here is that because a picture doesn’t transmit any of the psyche or inner tensions of the person portrayed (as in Richard Avedon’s work), it is not telling the truth, but it is telling a truth. In that respect Warhol certainly lived by the famous quote by Oscar Wilde: “The true mystery of the world is the visible not the invisible.”
Warhol’s technique consisted of overlaying a silkscreen based on a photograph, often from a news magazine, that was already several generations removed from the original image on to a painted surface. Here is how Warhol himself described the technique: “In August 1962 I started doing silk-screens. I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly line effect. With silk-screening you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It was all so simple, quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. When Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face - the first Marilyn’s.” Often in Warhol’s work the register of the screen is slightly uneven or off, or the paint is allowed to clog up in certain areas, allowing us to see the layering process. These layers further remove us from the content of the image and focus our attention on the formal qualities that at first glance appear quite matter-of-fact. Only on closer inspection do we see that the poetics of flat color and flat image are intricately measured and balanced while remaining emotionally distant.
Warhol consciously exposes this process, further distancing an image that seems to elude the very idea of an original. This paradoxically brings us closer, not to Marilyn or to Norma Jeane, but to the process of producing images and identity within the realm of mechanical reproduction, the true subject of his work. Warhol intuited the enigma of the many “Marilyn’s” in Marilyn, perhaps because he himself (born Andrew Warhola) was a master of manipulating personalities and could spot another master in the process of juggling identities. Alexander Rodchenko once wrote: “The road from the icon to the photograph is long,” but in Warhol’s work that time period gets condensed into a flash, it implodes into “now.” Icons work as well in prints, books, stamps, magazines, or shopping bags as they do in their original form for the same reason: Everything is on the surface. The great strength of Warhol’s work is also its primary weakness. Warhol was a disciple of flatness and the many ways that seriality, repetition, and sequence worked within the continuum of flatness. From his vast visual archives, he was able to intuitively choose the right image that would speak about the facility of mechanical reproduction and the over-stimulated spectacle of image consumption and the nature of copies. Yet in a culture devoted to instant images, the intoxication of perception is recognized, but is not explored in any detail, not because he lacked the intelligence or talent, but because he had no patience for it. He was after something else. The methodical search of Paul Cezanne or Willem de Kooning, and the kinds of existential doubts and their methodologies’ relationship to sensation and memory are foreign to Warhol’s aesthetic.
Donald Kuspit helpfully elaborates the differences between Warhol’s Marilyn and Willem de Kooning’s Marilyn Monroe (1954), with a shrewd analysis of one of the Dutch/American’s signature works from the 1950’s (significantly made when Marilyn Monroe was alive): “…de Kooning’s Marilyn Monroe expresses his deep contradictory feelings about woman. There are no attempts to rationalize this ambivalence, which would mean to accommodate it to traditional renderings of woman – rather than overthrow them, as it does. Submitting to familiar conventions of representation, de Kooning’s feelings would lose their traumatic intensity and pathos – their overwhelming expressivity – and become decorative, cosmetic details in a convenient, familiar appearance of woman. Instead, the loving desire that irresistibly leads de Kooning to woman in the first place and the protective hatred that keeps him from surrendering to her completely, fuse in his wild, unconventional gestures… Whether grandly aggressive or touchingly tender, de Kooning’s raw, raucous painterliness distorts Monroe’s very familiar appearance and all but destroys her cohesiveness and coherence, that is, unity and integrity, or clarity and logic. De Kooning in effect turns a benign external object into a malevolent internal object, bizarre and grotesque yet exciting and seductive… de Kooning treated a famous and successful woman “infamously,” as it were, mocking and violating her – sardonically destroying the image that was her identity, her very raison d’etre – and by implication the social machinery that produced the image and made it a commercial success.”
De Kooning explored his conflicted emotions in depth with a laudable intensity and earnestness, as well as a keen critical sensibility regarding American culture’s glamour factory – a popular subject with pop artists of the following generation. In contrast, Warhol’s approach with the silkscreen paintings, including the Marilyn series, seemed emotionally inert, passive, and uncritical. Warhol himself exhibited public displays of laconic diplomacy that were legend, never being critical of anyone or anything and usually applying the term “great” or some variant of that adjective to anything that was asked of him regardless of how banal or brilliant. His seeming detachment, aloofness, impassivity or lack of expressive facility was democratic, but it was also ironic to the point of no return. Marcel Duchamp was ironic in the traditional European way – as an intellectual aristocrat - while Warhol’s irony was charged with an enigmatic intensity of emasculated emotion that Duchamp completely lacked, seeming to always be discreetly bemused, while Warhol stared calmly into the headlights as they came at him. The emotional difference is crucial.
What Warhol intuited was to be seen in his work and in his films: We regard the void behind appearances, the oblivion lying just behind the polished social veneer. It takes a particular kind of religious sensibility to look into the void and come back with a story to tell. It might be somewhat strange to think of Warhol as a religious artist but in effect he performed that function for our time. In the Marilyn’s What Warhol tells us is in his work is that the layering process itself, consisting of: bright primary colors, black silkscreen ink, canvas and photography all add up to zero – not nothing but zero – what is left is the surface, the screen, the world of appearances. It’s a world that is frozen, airless, and where everyone is beautiful and dead, embalmed in media. What appears famous or immortal is in truth a thin veil that is delicate, ephemeral and impenetrable, because there is nothing to penetrate. Warhol negates the trajectory that comes from Cezanne through Picasso, and Braque to de Kooning, by simply saying “no.” It’s a romantic affront with a peculiarly American sensibility that is both narcissistic and self-effacing. Where the European romantics might have said (and did say) “let our servants do our living for us,”11 Warhol might have said “let our stars do our living for us.” If Romantic art can be said to begin with a disaster, the Raft of the Medusa (1819) by Theodore Gericault, it ends with another disaster, Warhol’s Death Series, a work that closed that particular chapter in Romantic art and began another that we are still experiencing today. Warhol got how media colonizes both consciousness and reality in some organic way that we don’t yet understand, despite the attentive responses from writers as different as Jean Baudrillard or J.G Ballard. As Warhol’s work seems to anticipate, when media takes center stage all other actors on stage become second players or fade altogether and disappear quietly into the scenery. Then something quite eerie happens, for very quickly those actors, once leading players, vanish without a trace. It is as if those things that media cannot use or find time for have never been - they cease to exist.
The precious surface of Marilyn is as thin as a banknote or a medieval icon. The iconology that is fundamental to Warhol’s work is as instant as an ad for shoes or a Kodak moment. In that sense it doesn’t much matter who or what the subject is as long as it has been under the magnifying glass of media: Elizabeth Taylor, a man wanted by the FBI, a bottle of Absolut vodka, Elvis Presley, a car accident victim, Franz Kafka, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Coca Cola logo, or a New York socialite. The silkscreen technique can be applied to any of them in the exact same way. The people or logos in Warhol’s most successful work have been turned into icons that are in the process of being consumed, digested, repackaged, and sold by media. Subjects that are outside of the purview of mass media don’t work because they exist historically, like bugs in amber, trapped in a world unknown to us, beyond the reach of media, except perhaps as fantasy art. As evidence we need only look at Warhol's work when it deals with subjects that are outside the purview of contemporary publicity and mass media, such as his portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven, to see his silkscreens very quickly turn into facile, albeit first rate, illustration.
The Disaster and Death prints, including the Marilyn’s are another matter. Warhol’s deadpan materialist analysis of publicity images is highly perceptive and without peer. No one dealing with this subject matter had his reach, his intelligence or his courage to go to the end of the line. Ironically this line took him, by a circular route, back to his roots in illustration and publicity, where he started in New York as an illustrator and ad man in the 1950’s. While many other artists have tackled the subject of advertising, particularly in the world of pop art, none have approached his deliberate, calm re-invention of the mechanics of fame, death and oblivion. Was Warhol right about the world of appearances? What is certain is that no one has better understood American sensibilities. Roy Lichtenstein, with a degree of irony, called himself an old fashioned painter in comparison, but there is some truth in this statement. Lichtenstein’s work still clings, however tentatively, to Picasso’s cubist layering process, sometimes literally and sometimes ironically, while Warhol travels a different road.
Lastly, a comparison between Warhol’s Marilyn and Bruce Conner’s short film Marilyn Times Five (1968-1973) is useful in getting at the more difficult act of criticism that both artists activate in very similar ways by the use of repetition. Bruce Conner’s film shows a woman named Arline Hunter, an actress who in 1948 made an eight minute erotic film called The Apple Knockers and the Coke that Conner extensively appropriates. Marilyn Times Five uses looped repetition in which we see the same film "The Apple Knockers and the Coke" five times - essentially putting that film in italics - interrupted by brief jump cuts to black film leader and to previously unseen footage. The soundtrack has a continuous loop of Marilyn singing I’m Through With Love taken from Some Like it Hot (1959). Who was Arline Hunter? Her filmography lists Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) and Outer Space Jitters (1957) with the Three Stooges, among a handful of other films. She often played “the harem girl” or “the stripper” in films with titles such as Casanova’s Big Night (1954). Her most serious role was probably in an episode of Johnny Staccato (1959-1960) playing a professional photographer opposite John Cassavetes. In Conner’s film we see brief clips of Hunter, who resembled Marilyn Monroe, posing for the camera wearing only panties. Hunter frolics on the beach, rolls an apple over her body and plays suggestively with a bottle of Coke. Nevertheless there might, at least partially, be short clips of Marilyn Monroe that we see in brief flash cuts - the fact that we can’t be sure is a large part of what the film is about. Conner’s work is a brilliant exploration of identity creation and cinematic conventions playing off each other almost musically as in counterpoint. The film looks to be a home made movie, a stag film, and a rough first draft for a Marilyn Monroe film that never was. It brilliantly deconstructs the various personas of Marilyn and the cinematic, photographic, and art conventions that she is forever associated with.
Marilyn Times Five is a film that Norma Jeane, Andrew Warhola, and Eugene Kornman might have appreciated as Conner captured something about the force of will and the intense creative energy required to create a persona and its fully fleshed realization for the benefit of a camera that captures only fractions of seconds. Marilyn Time Five explores those fractions of a second for 14 minutes. By the fifth cycle of Conner’s work, The Apple Knockers and Coke becomes a documentary about the making of that film, as the work is used to deconstruct itself. Conner’s distant, repetitive, formal approach to the content, that mirrors the seriality of many of Warhol’s paintings, allows us the luxury to reflect and ask, along with Conner: Who was this individual? Who are we even talking about? Arline Hunter? Marilyn Monroe? Norma Jeane? The question must ultimately remain unanswered, as the unique qualities that constitute a persona prove elusive. Identity is everywhere at stake, present at all times, difficult to locate, and nowhere the same. In Marilyn Times Five, film conventions that were already camp in 1968, and crazy adolescent sexual desire find themselves rolling around on the floor – something that often happened in Conner’s best work. Cinema-verite, pornography, Hollywood films, home movies, biography and meta-fiction meet and fuse, locked together in an endless recurring loop from which there is no return.
Conner deconstructs the cinematic conventions through collage, very much in the spirit of Richard Hamilton’s enormously influential collages that inaugurated fine art’s response to consumer culture, such as Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, So Appealing? (1956), and of course, Hamilton’s own version of the Monroe myth: My Marilyn (1965) that uses a complex layering of painting and photographic reproduction techniques using, like Conner, photographs of a woman on a beach that is in some shots clearly not Monroe, but in others might be the legendary star. The crossed out images astutely appropriates Monroe’s own proof-sheets – from photographers such as Bert Stern - and the “X’s” where she famously marked the images that have, by her standards, failed and are never to be reproduced. Hamilton in effect cleverly negates the negation and makes Marilyn his own, at least in his title.
Warhol in his Marilyn’s also uses a sophisticated layering process, but one that cancels out that depth. The fetish aspect normally associated with process and layering in art – from Cezanne to Paul Klee and from Jackson Pollock to Richard Hamilton - was a favorite strategy for modern artists as, whatever the differences in their work, the layers created a palimpsest of extraordinary density and power. Warhol simply rejected this process entirely, stacking his layers like crates – the matter-of-factness has the same affront, the same lack of conventional artistic “aura,” the same impertinence as a label for soup cans on a gallery wall. Is it any wonder that many, including de Kooning, claimed that Warhol was destroying art? In these machine driven, seemingly automated, repetitive artworks Warhol mechanically canceled out the process but he also produced a series of icons that both validated and negated idolatry. But what is being systematically validated/negated?
The answer is to be found in photography: riots, police beatings, insane asylums, car accidents, disasters - and then the stars: Jackie Kennedy mourning her husband at his funeral, Ronald Reagan advertising Van Heusen shirts, Chairman Mao posing for his official state portrait - film stars role playing in Hollywood: Elvis Presley in Flaming Star, Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, Bela Lugosi in Dracula, Marilyn Monroe in Niagara… In Warhol our mythologies come home to roost. The images are sometimes repeated on the same canvas in the most perfunctory way or in a diptych placed next to another canvas with nothing on it but a flat, impersonal, monochromatic surface of paint, so thin the surface of the canvas is plainly visible. The “empty” canvas seems to add insult to injury as it, of course, is equal to one that is “full” of images repeated ad infinitum ad absurdum. This repetitive absurdity, this methodical refusal, this slap-in-the-face, is the heart of his work and it is what makes it contemporary for us at the beginning of the millennium in ways that other works from the same period are not. Nevertheless Warhol shared with other pop artists that duality of criticism and idol-worship that was the central nervous system of their best work. He was poker faced to the end. As Albert Camus, a contemporary of Warhol’s in the 1950’s, put it, “It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end.” Warhol was logical to the bitter end. This paradox suggests a world, that we now inhabit as a matter of course, of mass spectacle, simulations, electronic image consumption/disposability and entertainment culture. It is a world that Andy Warhol and Marilyn Monroe understood very well as they were master players who were there at the beginning in the postwar era, and what they have to say can tell us a great deal about where we are now and where we might be headed.
©George Porcari 2015
 Anthony Summers. Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. Open Road Media 2012.
 Larry McMurtry. Marilyn. New York Review of Books, March 10, 2011.
 Norman Mailer. Marilyn. Putnam, 1973.
 Margery King. “Popular Photography.” Andy Warhol Photography. The Andy Warhol Museum, 1999.
 Ibid 4Margery King Andy Warhol Photography
 Douglas Fogle Supernova: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters 1962-1964 Walker Art Center 2005
 John Coplans. Andy Warhol: The Art. New York Graphic Society, 1978.
 Ibid 2Larry McMurtry Marilyn
 Alexander N. Lavrentiev. Alexander Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future, Diaries, Essays MoMA, 2005.
 Donald Kuspit. The Psychoanalytic Construction of the Artist. Allworth Press, 2000.
 Edmund Wilson. Axel’s Castle: a Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930.
 Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus Vintage 1991