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Up close with Marilyn: Behind the scenes of London’s new Monroe exhibition

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Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
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As a new photographic exhibition of the iconic actor opens, Stylist discovers a woman determined to change her public image.

She was – and still is – one of the most recognisable faces in the world, yet just when you think you know everything there is to know about Marilyn Monroe, a new side to her emerges. Up Close With Marilyn, an exhibition featuring rare photographs captured by the late actor’s friend and one-time business partner Milton H Greene, opens this week in London at Proud Central.

Stylist caught up with gallery director Amy Thornett to discover just what makes these photographs so different.

After their first collaboration in 1953, Greene became Monroe’s business partner for the next four years – how is their relationship reflected in the photographs?

The pair formed a close bond as well as a business partnership after Marilyn met Milton on a shoot for Look magazine in 1953. Marilyn’s demeanour in the photographs is relaxed and confident due to their familiarity with each other – he took more than 5,000 images of her in 52 different settings over the years. 

In 1954, Marilyn and Milton established the company Marilyn Monroe Productions to give her control of her career. He encouraged her to step away from the ‘dumb blonde’ roles. 

Blonde ambition: Monroe embodies Hollywood style 

In the age of #MeToo, the male gaze has come under scrutiny. Do Greene’s photographs reflect the male gaze, and is that problematic?

Greene was a heterosexual man and this can’t be disregarded. We see Marilyn posing for the male gaze while simultaneously turning her gaze back on the audience. She is defying our stares. 

Some of the prints in the exhibition are life-size so viewing the works in the gallery adds another dimension. Marilyn almost controls the room. 

In 1999, the ballerina photo [top] was named by Time magazine as one of the greatest photos of the 20th century – what do you think makes it so special?

She appears innocent yet alluring, which is a contradiction that came to define her image. The dress was made by Milton’s wife Amy and she didn’t know what size Marilyn was, so it was two sizes too small, which is why she is holding it up. 

Greene also photographed Monroe on location 

As you previously mentioned, Monroe was frequently portrayed as a ‘dumb blonde’ – how do the photographs challenge that stereotype?

They have a variety of settings with an aim to depict her acting versatility. The works show a Marilyn in performance, as opposed to Marilyn the person. They are not documentary images. They are playful but they also show a woman determined to change public perception of herself. 

Critics have used Marilyn as an example of how the male gaze can ultimately destroy a woman in the public eye. She did everything in her power to detach herself from the label, taking the production company that trapped her in the stereotype to court, a case she won in January 1956. 

Perhaps had she lived longer [Monroe died in 1962, aged 36] she would have had more support in her fight against this type of casting.

Up Close With Marilyn: Portraits By Milton H Greene runs at Proud Galleries, London, from 11 May-24 June. Entry is free. For more information, see proud.co.uk 

Photography: The Ballerina Sitting, 1954 © The Archives LLC/Iconic Images; The Rock Sitting, 1954 © The Archives LLC/Iconic Images; The White Fur Sitting, 1955 © The Archives LLC/Iconic Images.