Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Visioneer’s Gallery: Marilyn Reinvented

By Baldev Duggal Published in The Business of Photography
Visioneer’s Gallery: Marilyn Reinvented

"Diamonds are a girl's best friends," sang Marilyn Monroe mellifluously in 1953, forever embalming her charismatic appeal into the highest echelons of glitz and glamour in the world. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, and in a grand commemoration befitting this queen of glamour, "Marilyn Reinvented," a jewels-crusted photography show of the legendary "Last Sitting" series of photographs taken by Bert Stern, was unveiled a few days ago at the Milk Gallery, witnessing an overwhelming turnout of almost 800 people at the opening.

Bert Stern and I share an incredible working relationship that spans over 50 years. Way back in 1962 when I had just set up Duggal as a photo lab, I processed and developed Bert's photo rolls from the now historic "Last Sitting" photo shoot, where he shot over 2,500 photographs of Marilyn Monroe over three days for Vogue magazine. Taken only six weeks before her tragic death, the photos are "the last visible evidence of the living woman" and "…distinguished by an almost claustrophobic intimacy between photographer and muse." Many of the photographs from the shoot were never printed or shown to the public, until Bert discovered them in a box almost 40 years later. After making this surprising discovery in his collection, Stern brought the 40-year-old negatives to Duggal to see if we could help restore them to their original glory. My team of expert digital retouchers and editors worked with him for months to ensure that all damage to the pictures was repaired while keeping original details in the pictures intact. We printed these photographs as fine-art limited-edition prints. It was extraordinary to be part of a 40-year-long journey of an icon's narrative, a story that's still influencing pop culture 50 years after Marilyn passed on. I thrive on connecting art with technology at my company, so the symbolic leap that we made from printing the first set in 1962 using conventional techniques—from developing and processing to the contact sheet to the dark room to helping reintroduce the same photographs to the world as a result of almost 100% digital production all the way from scanning to printing—was truly remarkable.

In the last decade, pop culture has witnessed an increasing interest in the resurrection of the legend of Marilyn Monroe with apparently "13,000 products on Amazon" related to Marilyn Monroe. There are even talks of the Marilyn Monroe brand venturing into apparel in the next year. The fact that our culture continues to be obsessed with Marilyn Monroe even after five decades of her death has perhaps more to do with the photographs of the legend that continue to mesmerize us than the films in which she acted. Gertrud Koch, the preeminent film scholar, said, "When we face a photo, we can end up daydreaming, but in the case of a film, we are forced to follow the action." This ability to make the audience be enthralled by her story in stills was why Marilyn has stayed so alive in the cultural consciousness today. Lois Banner, an author and USC history professor who wrote Marilyn Monroe: The Passion And The Paradox, said, "The legacy of Marilyn Monroe has been carved as much by the iconic images we know of her in different poses, and those are owed as much to photographers as to the 33 films that she acted in." She continues, "This is one of the greatest stories of the American Dream ever personified."

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