Prep work for Assignment 3: Re-appropriating images

  • Look at the original image and do a semiotic analysis. Describe its contents (denotation) and possible meanings (connotation) as you did in Part Three. Extend your enquiry by researching the original context of the image. Why was it produced, where and when was it originally located, and how might audiences have interpreted it?
 Publicity still for  The Seven Year Itch , by Sam Shaw.

Publicity still for The Seven Year Itch, by Sam Shaw.

The image is a picture of a woman who appears to be trying to push her dress down as it is being blown up. The background is very dark and it would appear that it is nighttime. Nevertheless, she is very well lit and stands out from the background, both because she is dressed in white and because of artificial lighting that is directed upon her. Although she is holding her dress down, she is smiling, has her eyes closed and does not appear to be concerned. Although it is dark she is dressed for warm weather in a light halter dress and high-heeled sandals with no stockings. She is also carefully made up and wearing earrings that complement her clothes. It looks as though she may be dressed for an evening out.

In terms of connotation, this is a young, attractive woman who appears to be confident and enjoying herself on a warm evening. She is relaxed and well-dressed and is standing over a grate or grille. Her clothing suggests that she may be comfortably wealthy, but this could be misleading. She is dressed all in white—shoes, dress, underwear and earrings; even her hair is blonde—a colour that in the West has long connoted purity or innocence. Her legs are being exposed and she is both aware of it and not overly perturbed. And she is being watched: in the mid-left portion of the frame there is the reflection of a camera, so the woman is not only being lit and photographed from the front but her image is being recorded from behind. This is a performance with an audience that wishes to capture her and she is participating.

It doesn’t take much research at all to know that this is a picture of Marilyn Monroe, still one of the most recognizable people in the world. And anyone who has a passing interest in movies will know that this image is taken from an (in)famous scene in The Seven-Year Itch. The picture may have been taken while the scene was being filmed or may have been a recreation of the moment of filming. It exists in multiple versions that were shot from different angles: the director, Billy Wilder, attempted to film the scene on a New York sidewalk but it had to be shot on a soundstage because the filming attracted too much attention. The still images shot by Sam Shaw reveal more of Ms. Monroe than those that appear in the film.

Although the word “iconic” is overused to describe many images and other phenomena, this image has earned that title since the movie was released. Images of this scene were used to promote the movie when it was released in June 1955 and the dress itself sold for some US$5.6M when it came up for auction in 2011.

At this point in the movie Ms. Monroe’s character is out for a walk on a hot summer evening in New York City accompanied by her neighbour, a man whose wife and children have already escape the heat of the city for a summer at the ocean. Along the way she stops to enjoy a blast of (relatively) cool air from a grate in the street as a subway train passes below. The updraft lifts her skirt up and exposes her legs, but there is an innocence in the moment because Monroe’s character appears blissfully unaware of the effect that she has on those around her. She seems both knowing and unknowing. As with Venus—a comparison made by a number of commentators—Monroe is naked but not nude in the way expressed by John Berger: “To be naked is to be oneself; to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude. Nakedness reveals itself, Nudity is placed on display.”

I referred to the image as “infamous” because of the reaction of both Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe’s husband at the time, and of some American organizations and newspapers. The film was approved for wide release, however, and a 52-foot cutout of the famous scene decorated the facade of the cinema in Times Square where the movie opened. Many would have found the image titillating and some would have disapproved—the whole movie was banned in Ireland as indecent.

  • Also reflect on where the original is currently located. Where did you access it? Did you see the original or have you seen a reproduction in print, online or elsewhere? What does this tell you about our modern relationship to the example you’ve chosen? Does it highlight any change in attitudes or approaches to visual communication more broadly?

It is difficult to say where the original is located because, in a sense, there is no “original.” There are multiple versions of the image that have been taken from the film and from the many still image recreations afterward. I have seen the image so many times that I cannot remember which I saw first, the movie or the still (most likely).

This suggests several things to me:

  1. That iconic images such as this one are, by definition, ubiquitous and it becomes impossible for us to know when or where we first saw them or how we reacted to them. I am certain that if anyone saw any one of these images they would insist that they knew “it” and had seen it before, whether they had or not. In that sense, it is the presence of Marilyn Monroe, her pose and the dress that are famous, rather than any specific instance of the image.

  2. That there are multiple layers of meaning and context that come to be laid on famous images. It becomes almost impossible to view the image as a thing in itself independent of the stories that we associate with it. Do we even see the image anymore?

  3. That memory is unreliable and we are very suggestible. The things we think we know or remember can be false and influenced by images and the layers of meaning we have subsequently built upon them. (I have seen family members “remember” events in a photograph, only to be told that they were not alive when the image was taken. It is the photograph that they remember and they have written a false narrative around it that includes themselves.)

  • Now reflect on your chosen re-appropriated image. Why was it produced, how has it been shown to audiences and what do you think their interpretations are?
  The 500-Year Itch , 1992, by Shelley Niro.

The 500-Year Itch, 1992, by Shelley Niro.

The 500-Year Itch is a photograph created by artist Shelley Niro. Both the title of the work and its visual elements indicate that it was designed to reference the famous pictures of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven-Year Itch. It has been shown to audiences as a photographic print in galleries and was in a private collection for some years before being donated to the National Gallery of Canada. I saw a print of it recently as part of a Gallery exhibit entitled Photography in Canada: 1960–2000 and then again in the printed catalogue for the exhibit. I imagine that most viewers will encounter the image the way that I did: as part of the National Gallery’s retrospective on Canadian photography in the second half of the twentieth century. In this context, think that people will recognize the reference to Marilyn Monroe and find it a humorous take on images of female beauty. They may also think of the image as somewhat outdated, given that The Seven-Year Itch was filmed in the mid-1950s and that the current show is a retrospective that shows the work of Canadian artists, many of whom are now old or dead. The ongoing fascination with anything to do with Marilyn Monroe may help to give the image continued currency for viewers, however.

  • Make a comparison between the two images. You may want to place the two versions side by side and annotate the visual similarities, differences and other comparisons you make. How does the new work make reference to the old? Does it maintain, subvert or alter the original message in any way and, if so, how does this take place visually? Think about the visual elements of the two items. How is image, composition, typography, visual narrative or any other element used to construct Meaning?

Visually, the two images are similar only in very broad strokes: the curly blonde, the dress, a smiling woman and a source of air from below. The photograph by Shelley Niro references the Monroe images but her pose does not copy any of them exactly. The garment in Niro’s image is a white, sleeveless halter dress but it is not pleated and the material looks heavier. Niro’s shoes are not white sandals, but dark with a different heel, Niro is wearing glasses, a beaded necklace and a bracelet. If she is wearing earrings, they cannot be seen. Niro is also wearing a wig. Instead of Monroe’s subway grate, she stands astride an electric fan with a trailing cord. She also holds a remote control in her hand that we assume is used to trigger the camera taking the shot. Finally, the shots of Monroe have been produced as contrasty black and white images that nevertheless have a wide tonal range in the dress and skin. Niro’s photograph is either in colour or is a hand-tinted black and white. Her makeup has been accentuated on the print and items coloured yellow (wig, necklace and bracelet) especially so.

Niro’s image subverts Monroe’s in a number of ways. Although both photographs have been carefully created (one on a soundstage, the other most likely in a studio), Niro goes out of her way to highlight the artificiality of the moment: her hair is obviously a wig and its colour has been heightened like a poster or cartoon; she stands over an electric fan turned clumsily on its back; and she holds a remote control while looking directly at the viewer. Monroe participates with viewers (likely men) who capture her image; Niro fabricates her own patently false image and is in control of all its elements, from conception to the tripping of the shutter. In this sense, Monroe is an object while Nero is a subject.

  • Try and make connections between how the original and the re-appropriated image relate to one another both in terms of their visual construction and their context. This might lead to thoughts about wider cultural and social change, as well as differences in the use of visual communication and media at different times.

If we paid attention only to the visual content of the two images, Shelley Niro’s image could be read as a feminist critique of gender roles and sexism in image-making. It could also be seen as a comment on the mores of an earlier time and how some attitudes have changed while others have not.

The title of Niro’s work, however—The 500-Year Itch—points to another layer of intent and interpretation. The photograph was produced in 1992, so the ‘500 years’ in question would be 1492: the year of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. For Indigenous North Americans, such as Shelley Niro, that event is a kind of shorthand for the arrival of Europeans and their impact upon the cultures that lived here. The combined effect of the work and its title, then, is a response not only to stereotypical views of women in general, but more specifically to historical and more contemporary views on Indigenous women in North America.

I have also learned that the The 500-Year Itch has been displayed both as a standalone image and also as part of a triptych. The triptych makes the point much more clearly about stereotypical portrayals involving Indigenous women than does the standalone “Marilyn” shot, showing a picture of Niro’s mother in a fashionable dress and heels from the 1940s, bracketed by a picture of Niro as Marilyn and another of Niro barefoot in a shirt and jeans.

  The 500-Year Itch , 1992, triptych by Shelley Niro.

The 500-Year Itch, 1992, triptych by Shelley Niro.