Bert Stern was commissioned by Vogue Magazine to shoot a photo layout of actress Marilyn Monroe in late June 1962, some six weeks before her death. He shot Monroe over 3 daily sessions, and the work resulted in a book that sampled some of the 2500 images he shot of her. The book featured contact sheets wherein Monroe crossed out some of the shots she didn’t like. He said later that he was enchanted by Monroe until a “near-intimate” encounter after Day 2 led him to realize she was deeply troubled.
And this is the crux of what makes this a stunning, tragic, and, perhaps exploitative photo. There is a line we photographers reach wherein we realize what/whom we are shooting are damaged. Do we owe it to ourselves or society to take the shot, or do we owe our consciences and the subject to stop and attempt to get them help? Even without the glass, it’s obvious the actress is in deep decline, abusing substances and herself. She needed help, and none came. Stern was there, but he simply shot and left. Should he have done more? Would I have done more?
It’s not for me to say, but it is for me to say there should be lines where we stop being documentarians and resume being human. There is a time not to shoot and to know that the photo you didn’t take may be the most important of your life.
And on second thought, let me contradict myself. It is for me to fucking say. I’d have put down the fucking camera after Day 2 and made it my mission to be that woman’s friend. Perhaps that’s the failing that explains why I’m not a great photographer, but fuck, I’d rather be a great human any day.