The Marilyn Project

Part Tribute, Part Social Commentary

The project started a few weeks ago with a cheap $9 white halter dress from Amazon and messing around with a Mary for a few hours exploring approaches to some personal projects. Every once in a while I have great luck with super inexpensive wardrobe items in terms of how they look on camera. This was not one of those occasions. The fabric looked really bad, the dress had no structure or substance, and it was far too long for just about anyone. The only way the dress looked remotely decent is if it was in motion with a hint of blur at slow-ish shutter speeds.

Worse yet, the bottom was almost see-thru. We tried a bunch of kooky stuff just to see how it looked. Up on a table, down on the floor, spinning around. We played with a couple of props that seemed completely counter to the look of a white halter top dress. A whip, a riding crop. None of it really worked. No big deal after all it’s not like we had to make anything; Just play.

Just as we were about to move on and play with some other wardrobe items and concepts we decided to do the obvious, you know, the picture that pops into everyone’s head associated with a white halter top dress. That one of Marilyn Monroe with the dress blowing up. Why not right?

Mary No/1 Fujinon 35mm

The setup and circumstances were far from optimal. The studio fan is not even close to a wind machine and there was really no easy way to cause the dress to blow directly up but a few pictures in and there was something there. First was Mary’s take on “that picture”. Not at all what was in my head but certainly recognizable. In fact Mary had more than one interpretation all of them very different but all still very recognizable.

Mary No/1 Fujinon 35mm

Without any direction from me at all (rare) this was a set of circumstances that was obvious and ripe with room for interpretation for the person in front of the camera. As I made a few pictures some thoughts popped into my head. Specifically Marilyn Monroe’s life and it’s break down and analysis over the last two decades from a feminist point of view. Throw a rock in any direction and you will get someone’s completely different analysis on Monroe’s life and it’s relationship to feminism.

On one hand you have the hard-core crowd that takes Marilyn’s life as the epitome of victimization. On the other hand you have the post-feminist crowd that says — hey look she dealt the hand she was played extremely effectively and in many ways overcame societal notions to get what she wanted, a true proto-feminist. My opinion? Really doesn’t matter and what do I know anyway, who really does. As a photographer I ask questions rather than attempt to provide answers, especially with any subject as complex, nuanced and ultimately as personal as this. I’m a curious person, in fact that is the sole reason I am a photographer. Specifically I am curious about people and the human condition.

Mary No/1 Fujinon 23mm

Something sparked my curiosity on this that begged exploration. On a whim I decided to chuck in some manacles just to see what would happen and how they would play in this context. My intent was overt, on-the-nose symbolism. What I saw was far more interesting in terms of expression and gesture. Looking at a few test exposures there was far more there than just on-the-nose symbols and props.

There was something completely different but at the same time similar and beautiful and in some very strange way more free in a way that comes thru in photographs that is counter intuitive. That kind of thing always sets fire to my curiousity.

Mary No/1 Fujinon 23mm

One more thought occurred to me. What about photographing “that picture” from behind? There are a ton of movie stills, on-set promo pictures, and images from the staged promotion event but they’re all frontal or a little off to the side. Even the images made from the side at the famed promotional event Marilyn does her best to present herself from the front. What would this look like shot from behind?

Behind the scenes. Mary No/1 Fujinon 14mm

Mary is far more daring than myself but I thought it was an extremely bad idea to put her up on a narrow tall table with zero freedom of motion in her arms. Let’s try this from ground level.

Well this is certainly not going to work at all… especially not for full-length photographs. Not going to work even with the widest lens in my bag. Now what? I guess we’re going to need a lower, wider, far more stable platform to even sort of get the wind directly up.

Sifting thru the old prop stuff used for other purposes a long time ago we came up with a low, wide table painted half black and half white. I forget why that was done at this point. A practical solution with an unexpected benefit. Somehow the half black, half white paint scheme seemed appropriate for this.

Mary No/1 Fujinon 23mm

This works. Only a foot off the ground but enough with a tiny bit of clearance. More importantly this really works conceptually and visually. As is often the case when playing around with an approach for a completely different personal photographic project I stumbled onto something potentially far more interesting and as luck would have it far simpler in execution.

Later that day when initially importing images Mary and I made that morning I was shocked at how beautiful some of them were from a purely aesthetic point of view. So much so I printed a quick proof in black and white on matte paper. My first thought was that this was a super simple mini-project I could shoot inside 30 minutes with maybe ten different people and be done before the end of the summer. I’ve currently completed number eight within a few weeks of making these first few with Mary. I knew after the first three people that I was not going to relegate this concept to a quick mini-project. The raw material I was making was too interesting and too diverse. After the first few there were dozens of people that wanted to work on this with me. What made the concept even more interesting was how different every person’s take on it was. Diverse but instantly recognizable.

Isn’t it delicious?
— Marilyn Monroe 1954

Mary is used to being in front of the camera. What came next were people that are never or seldom on camera. Hotel food service managers, healthcare workers, mothers, alternative life-stylers, and hipsters. People of diverse backgrounds, age, and outlooks. I’ve since redefined my end-goals for the project. Something do-able and something with a very specific end.

My new project goals are:

  • Photograph 50 different people with as much diversity as possible.
  • From the raw material select and print 50 large black and white fine-art prints for the purposes of mounting an exhibition. I will worry about an appropriate venue afterwards as I don’t want marketing to enter into the equation in approach, feel, or who I select to collaborate with.
  • Self-publish a small run of books with a target of 150 images along with some background material and thoughts from the participants in the project.

As far as my personal photographic projects go all of these goals are contained and accomplishable by myself sometime this year or early 2016 without a lot of sacrifice on my part. Last week I created a Facebook page for the project, my first ever. The goal was to consolidate communication with people that want to participate as well as a place to show a few random images from my raw material as I go along. With almost zero social media presence of my own the response over the last week has been shocking. I’ve had people contact me from all corners of the world with interest and questions about the project and a desire to participate, how to get a print, when will the book be available, etc.

For now I’m keeping the project goals simple but as I go forward I may just attempt a super modest crowd-sourced funding injection to expand the scope just a hair beyond what I can do on my own. I have absolutely no experience with kick-starter nor indiegogo and would definitely need some help there if that’s a direction I take. If I do I know where I would take the project:

Expanded project goals:

  • Set a goal of photographing 100 different people.
  • Take the project on the road for more geographic diversity with the expanded scope.
  • Three different sizes of a dress that is closer to a reproduction of the iconic original.
  • An expanded publication run of the ultimate book for more general availability at a low cost.

As I go forward I welcome input, assistance, support, even critisism. I created this account for the purpose of a short cut explaining what this project is, it’s genisis, and my intent instead of explaining the very basic notions on dozens of occasions. I will also use it to share thoughts as I proceed that take more than a tweet or Facebook page post for anyone interested in more than a single pretty picture.

Karla No/2 Fujinon 18mm

Ultimately print production will be on a warm-toned matte paper via Epson 9900. All on-line images are toned to simulate a natural to warm toned base paper approaching the final print look.

Amanda No/7 Fujinon 14mm