Meeting Bert Stern
I got the amazing opportunity to meet Bert Stern in person on
June 16, 2011 and he signed my copy of The Complete Last Sitting. You can
read the full story on my
BOOK REVIEW BY DAVID MARSHALL
Christmas season is just warming up so I
figured Iíd highlight another of those major coffee table books this week.
Itís going to be up to you if you want to add it to your wish list or if you
would prefer to boycott Mr. Stern all together.
Itís a rough choice. On one hand
youíve got a huge book of extreme quality and a tagline on the cover that
reads ì2,571 Photographsî. On the other hand youíve got the work of a man
many feel took advantage of Marilyn while she was alive and disregarded her
wishes after her death. Like I say, itís a rough call. Used to be when
boycotts came around you would have an easy time deciding-- like not buying
grapes so as to support Cesar Chavez or not ordering Coors when in a bar. But
where it might be easy to go for apples over grapes or Bud over Coors, avoiding
the massive collection of photos taken over a three day period, (June 23, 24 and
25, 1962), during a time where many feel Marilyn was at her most beautiful---
itís going to be a very, very hard choice. But if you are anything like me,
you wonít hesitate a second. Yes, I feel kind of bad about it but I tell you,
the minute I saw that Stern had come out with the COMPLETE Last Sitting, I dug
that credit card out as fast as I could and even considered taking a cab rather
than lugging the massive tomb home on the subway.
For those of you who might not
know the controversy that surrounds Stern and all of his work with Marilyn,
there really is plenty to be angry about. First, regardless if it were at his
urging or just something he allowed to happen, Marilyn got more than a little
tipsy during one of these sessions and the result was several photos taken of
her without her consent as she slept. Then thereís the matter of the Xs.
Marilyn, as with all her photographers, had a clause that allowed her to review
all of the photos prior to anything being published. She would then X out those
she did not want to be seen: either with a red marker, fingernail polish or at
times with an object that would scratch right into the negative. It would be
impossible to not understand her wishes. Yet Stern did just that-- completely
disregarded her wishes and published several of the photos she had expressly
vetoed. Then thereís the matter of his -- what? Arrogance is what Iíd call
it. Itís the title of his first book, ìThe Last Sittingî followed up by
this volume, ìThe Complete Last Sittingî. For those of you who havenít
been filled in-- Marilynís work with Bert Stern was not the last nor was it
the second to last ìsittingî. It might be the last sitting, (and the first I
believe), that Stern did with her but it was not the last professional
photography session of Marilynís. That would be her work with Allan Grant for
the LIFE Magazine Meryman interview. And then between Stern and Grant there was
her two day session with George Barris.
So yeah, Sternís got a bit of an
attitude thing goiní on. But man, who can blame him? Well, a lot of folks I
guess but Iím the wrong one to ask as I LOVE the guyís work. Well, most of
Thatís the thing with Stern. You
either love his stuff or you hate it. And the photos that resulted from the
three day session are far from even. Some are just about the best stuff she ever
did -- like those black and white shots of that incredible backless black dress.
Some are pretty mediocre-- like the ones with the ìgo-goî dress. And then
thereís the ones I always think of as ìthose God awful things with her
laying on the floorî where Stern photographed Marilyn with various bits of
costume jewelry and glitter tossed on her. Again, Iím biased as Stern took a
photo of Marilyn during these sessions that to me is the Ultimate photograph of
Marilyn Monroe. Head back, lips parted, all the familiar nuances but then with
that soft pillow white hair coming down over one eye and an overall 60s look
that, for me, spells MARILYN like no other photograph taken of her.
Now before you make up your
decision of begging for it as a Christmas gift or boycotting all of Sternís
books, think about that tagline. 2,571 photographs. Talk about temptationÖ And
all on that fine, thick, expensive, high-quality paper. Ooooh man.
And thatís what makes this
book-- those 2,571 photos are quite an insight into just what all goes into a
photography session. You know the story, right? Vogue magazine had assigned
Stern to photograph Marilyn for something very new to her-- or at least
something she hadnít done in over 10 years-- fashion modeling. So hereís
Marilyn Monroe playing haute couture early 60s fashion model for the premiere
fashion magazine of the era. This, for the most part, is not the Marilyn we are
used to seeing. This is Marilyn in a hundred different hair styles, modeling the
designer clothes of the day-- chic sleeveless shifts, floor-length chinchilla
furs, and that paisley print Marilyn a Go-Go dress where she looks like sheís
doing the Frug, (if you donít know what the Frug is, donít ask). Then
thereís the scarf series, proving not only that the woman at thirty-six had
nothing to worry about as well as proving gall bladder operations do leave
scars. The bead series. The rolling around between the sheets series.
463 pages. 375 pages in color.
Every single picture, every proof sheet-- every click of the shutter for three
days of pure Marilyn Monroe. And when Stern says Complete, he does mean
Complete. That means the Xíd pictures as well as the astounding as well as the
so-so. Still undecided? Well then, think about what youíll be doing Christmas
afternoon once the wrapping paper has been picked up and the preparations for
Christmas dinner are under control and the kids are playing with their toys and
you just donít think you could actually stomach yet another viewing of
ìItís A Wonderful Lifeî. You could be sitting on the coach and slowly,
savoringly, go over every one of those two thousand five hundred seventy-one
photographs of one of the most beautiful and enchanting women ever born.