Bert Stern’s iconic photographs of Marilyn Monroe were the last before her suicide in 1962 - the image Marilyn Double X is part of a series of nudes and fashion images, commissioned by Conde Naste for inclusion in the Vogue magazine. The picture can be considered from a number of critical (or ideological) perspectives which this exercise seeks to outline in the following paragraphs.
A formalist view of the image would concentrate on the elements in the frame, observing the high key tone of the photograph and the fact that Monroe’s arms formed diagonal lines framing her face and disrupting the symmetry of a traditional head and shoulders portrait. The square crop would be noted as choice made by the photographer, eschewing the use of the rule of thirds or golden mean for a more confrontational composition, perhaps indicating strength or power. The scratches and orange crosses added by Marilyn would be seen as adding texture, line and colour - effectively de-harmonising the composition and creating an awkward juxtaposition between the beauty of the subject and her own violent intervention.
The marxist perspective on the picture would choose to consider the idea of Marilyn as a product of a capitalist society: a working class woman moulded and exploited by the American studio system and used to sell movies and magazines. The photograph serves to turn Marilyn into an object of desire, a product to be attained or owned by the viewer. The fact that the images were published posthumously serves to further underline the exploitation of Monroe. Consideration would also be made of the status of the photographer, Bert Stern was a successful fashion and advertising photographer. The marxist perspective would posit that his work did nothing to further the human condition and existed purely to feed capitalist society’s appetite for images of the rich, the famous and the beautiful. Such images create aspirational goals requiring further consumption or acquisition of capital, whilst enforcing existing boundaries between the working class and the elites.
A feminist reading of the photograph would seek to examine the relevance of gender roles in the final image and in it’s production and consumption. Monroe’s status as an object of desire, curated by a male dominated Hollywood studio and posed to fulfil the fantasies of the male photographer, would be seen as a reinforcement of the patriarchal hierarchies entrenched in society. The paradox of her ability to overcome a problematic childhood to become an international star, yet still be used as a decoration to tantalise men and enforce beauty stereotypes on women, is a further example of gender inequality. The image series was sent to Monroe to preview, forcing her to view herself as seen by the eye of the (male) photographer. Monroe’s crosses and scratches could be considered as a sign of non-compliance, of feminist activism - or conversely could represent insecurity and concern that the images did not meet the standard expected by others (the men that made and commissioned the series, or the women likely to consume them from the pages of Vogue).
The psychoanalytic perspective of the image would seek out unconscious meaning in the image, that is to say the subconscious motives at play the creation of the images. Stern had been fascinated by Monroe for many years before he took these photographs, in his own words: “I was preparing for Marilyn’s arrival like a lover and yet I was here to take photographs.” - the series (including several nudes) could be seen as reflecting Stern’s own desires, though his own comments suggest that these may have been more overt than subconscious. Additionally one may consider Marilyn Monroe’s own marks on the photographs - the scratches and crosses take on a new meaning when considered within the context of her suicide a short time after the shoot.
Each critical perspective considers the photograph in a different way, the political viewpoints of marxism and feminism seek to identify the social / cultural context and consequences of an image, whilst formalism looks at the image more literally using the language of description rather than meaning. Finally psychoanalysis attempts to look below the surface of the picture to uncover the subconscious influences on either the photographer, the subject or the viewer.
Terry Barrett, 2005. Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. 4 Edition. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.
Hans-Michael Koetzle, 2008. Photo Icons II (Icon (Taschen)) (v. 2). Edition. Taschen.