Up Close With Marilyn: Portraits by Milton H. Greene

This month, team YCB attended a private press preview of a special exhibition, held at Proud Galleries in London, that offers a glimpse into a rarely seen side of Marilyn Monroe.

‘Up Close With Marilyn: Portraits by Milton H. Greene’ documents the creative partnership between the Hollywood icon and Milton H. Greene, a celebrated photographer, with whom Monroe struck up a close friendship at the height of her career.

Throughout the years, Milton took more than 5,000 images of Monroe in 52 different settings. The actress and photographer first crossed paths in 1953 on set at a photo shoot for Look magazine and soon formed a close bond. What makes this exhibition so special is the almost-tangible intimacy between the photographer and sitter. Having seen many portraits of Marilyn Monroe in fashion exhibitions before, this is the most relaxed the icon, formerly known as Norma Jean, has appeared in front of the camera.

Interestingly, although Milton H. Greene was heterosexual, there was never any suggestion of a romantic liaison with the actress. Greene was happily married and Monroe was a close friend of the couple, spending two years living with the Greene’s intermittently in a guest suite adjacent to their converted old farmhouse, from 1954 until the summer of 1956.

But there’s more to these photographs than a series of Kodak moments between close friends, they’re portraits with purpose. When Greene met Monroe she had become disenchanted with Hollywood, having been typecast as a ‘dumb blonde’. Going into business together in 1954, Milton H. Greene and Marilyn Monroe cofounded ‘Marilyn Monroe Productions’ to manage the actress’ public image. In Greene Monroe had found an ally, an ally who encouraged her to challenge the public’s perception and showcase her acting talents.

The images Greene produced of Monroe at this stage in her career were, essentially, an acting show reel in photographic form. A body of work designed to show Marilyn in performance, portraying a diverse range of moods and characters. Through Greene’s portraits, we can see the many facets to Marilyn’s acting abilities. You’ll be familiar with the image of Marilyn Monroe as a sex symbol, but how often have you seen her looking pensive, or childlike, or vulnerable?

Where the exhibition really captivates, are the larger scale technicolour prints of Monroe, which showcase the actress up-close in overwhelming detail. When visiting, take your time to focus on one of these prints and watch Marilyn come to life before your eyes; so sharp are these images that the dusting of setting powder across her alabaster skin is perceptible.

One such image, and my favourite within the exhibition, is titled the ‘Bed Sitting’. In this captivating portrait, Monroe lies in bed, golden goblet in hand, wrapped in white bed sheets, eyes fixed firmly to camera. This should be a seductive image; after all it is Hollywood’s most infamous sex symbol lying naked in bed. And yet Marilyn’s pensive expression conveys a different mood altogether, she looks deep in thought, almost vulnerable and interestingly, as one guest at the preview commented ‘That doesn’t look like Marilyn Monroe at all’.

If you’d like to take a piece of the Milton-meets-Monroe-magic home, you’ll be interested to learn that all prints in the exhibition are for up sale, although being true collectors’ pieces you’ll need to call Proud Galleries for prices (the ‘Bed Sitting’ print will set you back a cool £8k). I have no doubt these prints will be snapped up however, just like the actress herself Milton H. Greene’s prints are mesmerising, one-of-a-kind and highly covetable.

See below for our favourite photographs from the collection, and the stories behind each portrait…

Schneck House, 1953

@ The Archives LLC / Iconic Images

Joseph Schneck was partners with Darryl F. Zanuck and together they created the famous film studio, 20th Century Fox. After being convicted and serving time for tax evasion, Schneck returned to 20th Century Fox and mentored young, and up-and-coming Marilyn Monroe. He remained Marilyn’s benefactor but was unable to convince Zanuck to give her more roles of substance.

During the autumn weekend in 1953, Schneck allowed Milton and Marilyn to stay at the guest villa of his Beverly Hills estate, where the two friends created this series of relaxed, candid-style photographs.

The Ballerina Sitting, 1954

@ The Archives LLC / Iconic Images

Perhaps Milton and Marilyn’s most recognizable series of images, the ‘Ballerina Sitting’ was naed by Times magazine in 1999 as one of the top three photographs of the 20th century; alongside Philippe Halsman’s photo of Albert Einstein and Yousuf Karsh’s Winston Churchill.

Taken in Milton’s New York studio, Marilyn is wearing an ill-fitting tulle-and-satin dress. The design of the dress has been commonly attributed to Anne Klein, a close personal friend of the Greenes whose clothes Milton frequently borrowed. However, it was actually created by another New York designer, Herbert Kasper, while working for 7th Avenue fashion manufacturer Arnold-Fox. Milton also used Kasper’s designs as various times during the 1950s.

The fitting error was because Milton’s wife, Amy, did not know Marilyn’s actual dress size, as they had yet to shop together. The dress was apparently two sizes too small, requiring Marilyn to hold up the front bodice. Her ability to adapt and make the most of every situation is indicative of her hardworking spirit, sense of humour and trust in Milton.

The Bed Sitting, 1953

@ The Archives LLC / Iconic Images

This rare and previously unpublished photograph is part of a series taken at the guest villa in the estate of Joseph Schneck, one of the founders of 20th Century Fox. The simple environment of only pillows, sheets, and robe, and a copper cup (very fashionable in the 1950s) demonstrated Marilyn’s versatility; a chameleon showing a different personality with each new scenario and ensemble. This photograph also reveals how comfortable Marilyn was with Milton when he was behind the camera.

The Black Sitting, 1956

@ The Archives LLC / Iconic Images

Many Monroe fans revere the ‘Black Sitting’ as the finest pictures of Marilyn available, as well as the ultimate Monroe-Greene accomplishment. Although sexy and provocative, this photograph manages to retain a sense of innocence and youth.

Over the course of four hours, Milton and stylist Joe Eula had Marilyn posing with hats, bustiers and fishnet stockings. They went a step further towards the end of the shoot, and had Marilyn pose topless while draped in black velvet. Other than the private portfolio that Milton gave Marilyn, these photographs were never released during her lifetime, and only when they appeared in Norman Mailer’s 1976 book Marilyn were they seen by the public for the first time.

The Rock Sitting, 1954

@ The Archives LLC / Iconic Images

This portrait was first published in an editorial for Look magazine and depicts Marilyn nestled in the rocky crevasses of Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. Milton Greene would often use textured backdrops in his photographs, such as draped fabrics or natural landscapes, to give his pictures visual depth.

Sophie Green

Sophie Green is PR Manager for a designer flash sale website and part-time fashion blogger, having founded her fashion and shopping blog Lafashionfolie.com in 2012. Finding a passion for the industry at a young age, Sophie studied Fashion Communications at university and has worked in the industry for over a decade, heading up the PR departments of several fashion and fine jewellery brands. Through her fashion blog she has worked on campaigns with brands including UGG Australia, La Redoute and Headmasters and counts sitting opposite Anna Wintour at the Topshop Unique LFW show as a career highlight! Outside of work Sophie likes to unwind by hitting the gym for a boxing class or ‘researching’ the best G&T’s the capital has to offer. Her fashion obsession is sequins, with an entire section of her wardrobe dedicated to all things-sparkly!

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