MARILYN MONROE, THE TALK OF HOLLYWOOD | 1952 PHOTOGRAPHY OF PHILIPPE HALSMAN

In 1952, LIFE magazine assigned photographer Philippe Halsman to shoot Marilyn Monroe in her tiny Hollywood studio apartment. The resulting cover photo (at the end of this post) pushed her over the top, giving her immediate superstar status, and 20th Century Fox jumped to sweeten her existing multi-year contract to keep their starlet happy.

Marilyn Monroe LIFE Magazine Philippe Halsman photo shoot 1952 crop 900

“I drove to the outskirts of Los Angeles where Marilyn lived in a cheap two-room apartment. What impressed me in its shabby living room was the obvious striving for self-improvement. I saw a photograph of Eleanora Duse and a multitude of books that I did not expect to find there, like the works of Dostoyevsky, of Freud, the History of Fabian Socialism, etc. On the floor were two dumbbells.

I took hundreds of pictures. Finally I asked her to stand in the corner of the room. I was facing her with my camera, the LIFE reporter and my assistant at my sides. Marilyn was cornered and she flirted with all three of us. And such was her talent that each one of us felt that if only the other two would leave, something incredible would happen. Her sex-appeal was not a put-on– it was her weapon and her defense.” –Philippe Halsman

Marilyn Monroe LIFE Magazine Philippe Halsman Photo 1952 900

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There’s something about these striking images of a young Marilyn Monroe working out in her jeans and terry cloth bikini top that are at once both innocent and sexy– which I guess is the magic of her eternal allure. The shot of her holding up two dumbbells while reclined on the weight bench happens to be my favorite Marilyn shot ever. She seems to be in a period of self-improvement, toning her body, mind, and spirit. Too bad she was soon headed towards more drama and pain.

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In the spring of 1952, Halsman put his signature technique to work when LIFE sent him to Hollywood to photograph Marilyn Monroe. Halsman asked Monroe to stand in a corner, and placed his camera directly in front of her. Later, he recalled that she looked “as if she had been pushed into the corner cornered with no way to escape.” Then Halsman, his assistant, and Life’s reporter staged a “fiery” competition for Monroe’s attention. “Surrounded by three admiring men she smiled, flirted, giggled and wriggled with delight. During the hour I kept her cornered she enjoyed herself royally, and I . . . took between 40 and 50 pictures.” via

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In this widely familiar portrait, Marilyn Monroe wears a white evening gown and stands with her back against two walls, one dark, the other light, her eyes half closed and her dark, lipsticked mouth partly open. Yet Halsman deftly avoided any explicit representation of the true subject of the picture. Using the euphemistic language of the time, Halsman’s assistant admired the photographer’s ability to make “suggestive” pictures of beautiful women which still showed “good taste,” emphasizing “expression” rather than “physical assets.” And then the assistant added, “Halsman is very adept at provoking the expression he wants.” via

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Philippe Halsman’s iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe makes the cover of LIFE magazine, April 7, 1952.

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philippe halsman marilyn monroe  jump photo 1954

When the photographer Philippe Halsman said, “Jump,” no one asked how high. People simply pushed off or leapt up to the extent that physical ability and personal decorum allowed. In that airborne instant Mr. Halsman clicked the shutter. He called his method jumpology. When you ask someone to jump, Halsman said, “the mask falls, so that the real person appears.” The idea of having people jump for the camera can seem like a gimmick, but it is telling that jumpology shares a few syllables with psychology. As Halsman, who died in 1979, said, “When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping, and the mask falls, so that the real person appears.” One of the purest examples of this joy is an image (from 1954) of Halsman himself, holding hands with a smiling Marilyn Monroe several feet off the ground. Facing his partner, he seems ecstatic, as if he cannot believe his luck. He will hang with one of the world’s most photogenic beauties for eternity. The two are caught in nearly matching, tucked-knees positions. via

THE PHILIPPE HALSMAN WEBSITE

Philippe Halsman (1906-1979) was born in Riga, Latvia and began his photographic career in Paris. In 1934 he opened a portrait studio in Montparnasse, where he photographed many well-known artists and writers — including André Gide, Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier, and André Malraux, using an innovative twin-lens reflex camera that he designed himself.

Part of the great exodus of artists and intellectuals who fled the Nazis, Halsman arrived in the United States with his young family in 1940, having obtained an emergency visa through the intervention of Albert Einstein.

Halsman’s prolific career in America over the next 30 years included reportage and covers for every major American magazine. These assignments brought him face-to-face with many of the century’s leading statesmen, scientists, artists and entertainers. His incisive portraits appeared on 101 covers for LIFE magazine, a record no other photographer could match.

Part of Halsman’s success was his joie de vivre and his imagination — combined with his technological prowess. In 1945 he was elected the first president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP), where he led the fight to protect photographers’ creative and professional rights. In 1958 Halsman’s colleagues named him one of the World’s Ten Greatest Photographers. From 1971 to 1976 he taught a seminar at The New School entitled “Psychological Portraiture.”

Halsman began a thirty-seven year collaboration with Salvador Dali in 1941 which resulted in a stream of unusual “photographs of ideas,” including “Dali Atomicus” and the “Dali’s Mustache” series. In the early 1950s, Halsman began to ask his subjects to jump for his camera at the conclusion of each sitting. These uniquely witty and energetic images have become an important part of his photographic legacy.

Writing in 1972, Halsman spoke of his fascination with the human face. “Every face I see seems to hide – and sometimes fleetingly to reveal – the mystery of another human being. Capturing this revelation became the goal and passion of my life.”

10 thoughts on “MARILYN MONROE, THE TALK OF HOLLYWOOD | 1952 PHOTOGRAPHY OF PHILIPPE HALSMAN

  1. The photo of her lifting weights on the bench is one of my favourites too…in fact I think I first stumbled across TSY after finding it here in a post about the history of denim? Or maybe I just imagined that?

    I’ve never seen the other photos from the set though – great post.

  2. Great post! I have had this poster of Marylin with the dumbbells in one of my bathrooms for the past 15years! Such a great picture! Thanks for the article!

  3. Also on the cover of Life–”There Is A Case For Interplanetary Saucers”. I wouldn’t mind seeing those pictures, either.

    • She didn’t have all the window dressing, as they do now in the photos. Very natural, more like a true goddess.

  4. It never ceases to amaze me, that over 50 years after her death, I keep finding new photographs Of Marilyn..and I’m a lifelong fan. I once had an argument with a photographer buddy that claimed Princess Diana was the most photographed woman of all time. I countered that Marilyn was. We eventually came to an agreement that while there in fact might be more pics of Diana in existence, 90% of them were inferior paparazzi shots, while the bulk of Marilyn’s photos were done by true professionals. As time goes on, I’m not even sure there aren’t more of Marilyn, period. Thanks for the post!

  5. it had been said a million times…….” a picture is worth a thousand words”….. just what are you words??

  6. believe me I’ve taken the time to go through the blog, your work is wonderful: photos, bikes and more. thank you!

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