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:
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.
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?
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?