The Making Of A Legend

"The first day a photographer took a picture of her, she was a genius," director Billy Wilder said of Marilyn Monroe. If you don't count the shot of her taken by an Army photographer when she was working on a World War II assembly line, Andre de Dienes was that photographer. He met Monroe in late 1945, when she was still just Norma Jeane Dougherty, a Hollywood nobody nursing a budding modeling career. The tragic figure, the vamping icon--that was future tense. What de Dienes saw, and captured on film, was simply a beautiful girl out of her mind with happiness at the chance to get in front of a camera.

Many of the pictures in "Marilyn" (Taschen), an extravagantly produced showcase of de Dienes's work coming in September, have never been seen before. Unseen Marilyn photos? You'd think there'd be a greater chance of discovering a new planet, but yes, indeed, the legend who personified the word "overexposed" just expanded her portfolio. Better yet, these are first-rate pictures, gorgeously reproduced. While a lot of them are corny by current standards (Marilyn with a volleyball at the beach, in a Heidi-like get-up posing with a lamb), even the tritest pose is sincerely affecting. Best of all, she doesn't look altogether like Marilyn yet. Her hair is darker, curlier. Untrained and uncoached, she smiles too broadly, and she doesn't quite know how to pose yet. She hasn't been tweezed to perfection. She's still wonderfully human.

It didn't hurt that de Dienes had fallen in love with her the day they met, when she answered a modeling call at his bungalow in the Garden of Allah apartments in Hollywood. He couldn't have asked for a more obliging model, who almost instantly consented to travel with him for a couple of weeks, from the California desert to the snows of Oregon. Sure, he spent most of the time trying to talk her into bed, and yes, she finally consented, and yes, there was talk of marriage. But for once, the back story is the least interesting part. It's the pictures he took on that trip that matter.

De Dienes continued to shoot Monroe off and on, almost to the end of her life. The later pictures--including a photo essay for Life of Marilyn rehearsing with her acting coach--are less interesting: by then she and Hollywood had all but erased the Norma Jeane that glistens in the earlier shots. But de Dienes always found a sweetness that other photographers missed. She trusted him enough to remain vulnerable before his lens, and he reciprocated with pictures both affectionate and intimate.

During his lifetime, de Dienes published many of his Monroe pictures. But he kept hundreds of prints like secret treasure--a true eccentric, he once buried a lot of his work in his Hollywood backyard, where it sat for nearly a decade before he remembered to dig it up. (Fittingly, the new book comes packed inside a huge yellow box--like the Kodak boxes photographers use to store prints and negatives. It's a triumph of design, with three components, including a facsimile of the photographer's diary.) Not long ago, the book's editor, Steve Crist, persuaded de Dienes's widow to open her husband's archive for the first time since the photographer's death in 1984. Only then did anyone realize how much had been lost for so long: striking color photos that had been published only in black and white, dozens of shots never seen before and almost none given the restorative care that--at last--shows what a vibrant, sharp-eyed portraitist Andre de Dienes truly was.