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Photography and Public Image

Photographs of public figures or celebrities often reinforce their personas rather than reveal the real person behind the public image, but sometimes photographers manage to break through the facade.


Marilyn Monroe, actress, New York

Richard Avedon
(American, 1923–2004)

1957. Gelatin silver print, printed 1989, 7 15/16 x 7 13/16" (20.2 x 19.8 cm)

Celebrated American portraitist Richard Avedon aimed to uncover the true personalities of everyone he photographed—including celebrities from a diversity of disciplines. His famous subjects ranged from pianist, composer, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff (who Avedon photographed when he was not much older than 10) to President Barack Obama (whose portrait he made in 2004, when he was Illinois State Senator).

Actress and pop culture icon Marilyn Monroe was also among Avedon’s sitters. Recalling a portrait session with Monroe that took place in his studio in May 1957, he said, “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s—she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.”1 Avedon managed to capture one of the most photographed stars with her public façade down, producing an image that provides a rare glimpse of her inner life.

Richard Avedon portraits. Essays by Maria Morris Hambourg, Mia Fineman and Richard Avedon; foreword by Philippe de Montebello. New York: Harry N. Abrams: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A representation of a particular individual.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

The area of an artwork that appears farthest away from the viewer; also, the area against which a figure or scene is placed.

Avedon Keeps It Simple
Like most portraits by Avedon, this one of Monroe features a spare backdrop. About his preference for neutral backgrounds, the photographer once said, “I have a white background. I have the person I’m interested in and the thing that happens between us.”