Photos by Bert Stern
Text by Ye Charlotte Ming
In June and July of 1962, Bert Stern photographed Marilyn Monroe over three sessions at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. The actress was already tormented by depression at that point of her life, but in Stern's photographs, she was alluringly playful and energetic. The shoot turned out to be her last — Monroe was found dead in her Los Angeles home a few weeks later.
An esteemed portrait and fashion photographer, Stern first proposed Vogue the idea of photographing Monroe. He took more than 2,500 frames during the three daily sessions with her, and sent back the contact sheets so the actress could approve them before publishing. For the images she didn’t like, Monroe crossed them out with a red mark.
“I was preparing for Marilyn’s arrival like a lover," Stern confessed in his book, the Last Sitting, chronicling his days spent with the famed actress. “And yet I was here to take photographs. Not to take her in my arms, but to turn her into tones, and planes, and shapes, and ultimately an image for the printed page.”
On their first shoot, Stern photographed Monroe nude, sometimes covered with a translucent scarf or pink cloth flowers. "What I wanted from Marilyn Monroe was the nudes because I couldn’t think of anything to put on her,” Stern revealed.
But Vogue sent him back to photograph her again in various outfits, including a more classic open-back black dress, and subsequently chose to publish only those photos of her fully-clothed.
When the news about Monroe's death broke, the Vogue issue containing Stern’s portraits had just gone to press. After debating whether to remove the pages or publish them, Stern and the editors sided with the latter.
"For these were perhaps the only pictures of a new Marilyn Monroe — a Marilyn who showed outwardly the elegance and taste which we learned that she had instinctively; an indication of her lovely maturity, an emerging from the hoyden's shell into a profoundly beautiful, profoundly moving young woman," Stern wrote.
However, looking back, it is those nude photos Vogue didn’t publish, that best captured Monroe in an unguarded moment, revealing the torturous but resilient life she lived.