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Staley-Wise Gallery : Bert Stern : Marilyn Monroe, The Last Sitting 1962


Marilyn Monroe : The Last Sitting, 1962
By Bert Stern

(…) We drank champagne and concentrated on the pictures. It was hard, it really was hard, because she was happening. She was alive. A wild spirit, as fleeting as thought itself and as intense as the light that played on her. I couldn’t freeze Marilyn and expect to get a picture from her. She was totally the opposite of Elizabeth Taylor. Liz Taylor’s already there. All she has to do is turn exactly straight and be still. Her beauty is formal. Liz is the fact of beauty. Marilyn was the fantasy. If Marilyn were still for an instant, her beauty would evaporate. With her it was like photographing light itself.
She was much more of a partner than I’d expected. The first hour or two I had an idea of what I was after. I had all kinds of imagery floating around, and she was picking up on it, performing it all. I didn’t have to tell her what to do. We hardly talked to each other at all. We just worked it out. I’d photographed a lot of women, and Marilyn was the best. She’d move into an idea, I’d see it, quick lock it in click it, and my strobes would go off like a lightning flash- PKCHEWW!! -And get it with a zillionth of a second.
At one point Marilyn was playing with a rose-colored scarf, and I caught her feeling herself up a bit, feeling her own blossoming, her own…lusciousness. What is this? Wow, what IS this? I remembered when I was twelve, hiding in my parent’s dark bedroom, spying on the pretty blond girl who lived across the street. Her name was Mary. She was about eleven years old, and she was just beginning to do things like that to herself, to run her hands over her breasts and…wow, what IS this?
I didn’t want her to see me, so I’d sit in the dark and look in the mirror and through the mirror I could see out the window across to her window-like looking through the camera at Marilyn. I sat there for an hour once, waiting, wondering, hoping that she’d play with herself while I was watching. And sure enough, her hand stole under that pink sweater.
The next morning she saw me on the street and said, “If you don’t stop looking at me, I’m going to tell your mother!” I was just curious about women, just as awed and mystified now as I was when I was twelve. But I have been given a magic machine that made it all right. The camera was the magic that transported me to the dream: Marilyn, Mary, the blonde girl, the girl next door, right here in my hotel room with almost no clothes on.
Her innocence amazed me. Here was a girl you’d think would be super aware of guys coming on to her, and she just went right past that, into another space that was far more childlike and interesting. I think there’s a child in all of us it’s very hard to free. Not with Marilyn. She was real, like a little child. Real in her sexuality and just as real in her modesty.
Every time she tried a new scarf, or a more daring pose, she’d call out “George!”
George Masters would come running in, and she’d say doubtfully, “What do you think?” George would reassure her.
Finally, we got down to the two chiffon roses. I handed them to her, and all she could do was hold them in front of her one over each breast.
Now she was really getting turned on. I could see it, I could feel it. And if I didn’t shoot when she expected me to she’d laugh. All I had to do was pause for two seconds, miss a beat, or change my mind and do something off tempo, and she’d respond. And we would go a step higher.
By now I’d already reached the point of my expectation. The only place to go was beyond, into something even I didn’t know about. Usually that’s hard, to exceed myself. A lot depends on the mood and the model. With some people it’s one…two…three….so I may just work up to that point where I was after and stop. But every once in a while, someone walks into my life who’s super alive. And because she’s super alive, I get to experience my own super aliveness. Marilyn and I just jumped from one to seven and went right to eight. And we entered into another space in which no one existed but us.
Somewhere in the idle of the night, outside of time, it happened. We began to open up whole new phases and dimensions, to go into pictures that were closer to truth and harder to capture, pictures I knew I’d like even more when I saw them. I could feel those pictures when they happened, and so could she. They made her laugh and me smile. We weren’t just making love, we were making pictures.
There’s no greater sensation than making love with a camera. Right for me is right for you…can’t you feel it when you’re on and see it when it misses? The music was playing, the strobes were clicking- kchk-kchk-kchk-kchk- kchk- when they really get going they talk to you, those lights. They make you laugh, because they click with your mind, and you really know it’s you that is clicking, flickering like heat lightning, and the lights go blam and the room goes dark and the light exists only when I shoot the picture…I look at her, she has blue eyes, green eyes…and all of a sudden, it’s quiet. The music’s quiet. We’re in space. We’re out of this world. I’m out here in the absolute, taking photographs.
When you take pictures that way, you’re in another mental state. You don’t have to ask questions. Your brain is on automatic. That automatic system knows all the f-stops, knows everything. All you have to do is just think of anything you want, anything, and you can have a picture of it. And those are the ones that really knock you out when you look at them. They’re so simple. So far out. They are a greater life.
Marilyn had the power. She was the wind, that comet shape that Blake draws blowing around a sacred figure. She was the light, and the goddess, and the moon. The space and the dream, the mystery and the danger. But everything else all together, too, including Hollywood, and the girl next door that every guy wants to marry. (…)

Bert Stern
Excerpt from Marilyn Monroe : The Last Sitting, 1962
By Bert Stern
Published by William Morrow and Company, 1982


Bert Stern : Marilyn Monroe, The Last Sitting 1962
January 27 – March 26, 2022
Staley-Wise Gallery
100 Crosby Street
New York NY 10012

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