"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."
Photographed by some of the greatest photographers of her time, Monroe is said to have been a perfect model, fully confident of her visual appeal yet wrought with insecurities—her beauty mixed with her vulnerabilities infused a special life in her pictures. But none of her pictures have had quite the staying power than the ones shot by Bert Stern in the "Last Sitting" series. Those photos have been described by author Amanda Fortini as "arguably the most famous images ever captured of America’s most famous actress…remarkable for the raw truths they seem to reveal." She adds, "Stern excavated and preserved the poignant humanity of the real woman—beautiful, but also fragile, needy, flawed—from the monumental sex symbol." Despite never having received formal training in photography, Bert Stern created photographs that have frozen Monroe in our memories forever. Spontaneous, sensuous, playful and unstaged, the photographs take us on a three-day journey with Marilyn Monroe in which we are awed, thrilled, sympathize and idolize the icon at the same time. Such is the staying power of those pictures that Vogue hired Bert Stern to recreate the same pictures using another pop icon of our times, Lindsay Lohan.
Having acquired an almost cult-like following, the photographs of Marilyn Monroe aren’t an easy job for a curator to present in a new light. How does one communicate the narrative of a legend through printed stills? Stern, now in his 80s, has managed to surprise us all once again by "reinventing Marilyn" through gemstones encrusted on the photographs, creating a three-dimensional experience of the model for the viewer. Lisa and Lynette Lavender from Bert Stern’s team worked closed with our account manager Hope Savvides and a host of other Duggal team members since 2010 on creating the new series of prints for "Marilyn Reinvented." We began with printing the images on digital canvas then also tested the pictures on digital watercolors to achieve a fine-art-painting-like effect. Atop each print, Swarovski crystals, borealis crystals as well as fresh water pearls were painstakingly placed on different elements in the photo to create a remarkable three-dimensionality. A glamorous photo of Monroe wearing a scarf that has now been embellished with crystals epitomizes her exquisite feminine appeal. The effect is almost magical across the prints. We printed Fine Art Archival Giclee Watercolor Prints ranging from size 16×20 inches all the way to 10 feet. The largest print was a backdrop of an old contact sheet of Marilyn Monroe that was scanned at very high resolution on a drum scanner and printed on magic canvas material. It’s almost like a wallpaper. It has adhesive backing that’s removable. The opening was so successful that New Yorkers queued up outside Milk Studios to gain entry. And to make the entire experience a especially gratifying one, we were given a tremendous compliment by Lisa Lavender, who remarked, "Bert only used Duggal because they not only print on many various papers and canvases, but they have an excellent team to clean his 50-year-old negatives. They are perfectionists and incredibly professional."