Images of Marilyn Monroe offer snapshots of taboo Hollywood history

Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 film Niagara

Rare handmade color separations of one of Marilyn Monroe’s most iconic images have gone on display in San Francisco, showing the iconic actress in the nude as well as the painstaking effort that went into creating posters before the computer age.

On Friday and Saturday, Bay Area residents will be able to gaze at large prints the organizers say represent one of the most important cultural moments in Hollywood’s history.

At a time when sex was taboo in Los Angeles and actors signed morality agreements, Monroe was yet to be the monumental success that would make her a symbol of both Hollywood and sex. She was fearful of the backlash nude images could have on her career, so she signed the model release form “Mona Monroe” to hide her identity.

According to Limited Runs, one of the largest online sellers of original and vintage posters, print art and photography and the curators for the traveling display, in 1949, Monroe found herself “behind on rent and her car in repossession” and happened to come across photographer Tom Kelley.

Limited Runs president and founder Pierre Vudrag said on Thursday, as he retold the story of how the photos came to be, that “these photos really changed Hollywood’s perception of what was acceptable and what would sell”.

Monroe, after a few days contemplating whether or not to pose nude, agreed to the shoot and on 27 May 1949 spent two hours having Kelley shoot a set of pictures that included what would become one of the most important images in modern American culture. The image would eventually grace the first ever issue of Playboy, which Vudrag believes helped propel the magazine to success.

In December 1953, a young Hugh Hefner purchased the rights to reproduce the images for $500 from the John Baumgarth Company, and used the image as part of the “Sweetheart of the Month” centerfold for the inaugural issue. Not convinced the Playboy magazine idea would be successful, the first issue was unnumbered, but it would sell over 54,000 copies and proved to be the launch of Hefner’s Playboy empire.

The photos have avoided destruction on a number of occasions, said the organizers of the display, which includes the original separations that allow the viewer to see the detail and time that was required to develop images for calendars, magazines and other mediums.

Each separation is painstakingly created and artisans “corrected the many layers of film for the full color printing process – a masterpiece of printer’s art”, a handout given to visitors reads.

Vudrag said that after the images were leaked, studios wanted Monroe to deny the image was of her, concerned it would doom her still yet to blossom film career.

“Studios urged her not to admit that she was the model in the image and they were worried that it would end her career before it began.”

Instead, when Monroe told UPI reporter Aline Mosby in March 1952 that she was indeed the nude calendar girl, Mosby wrote a sympathetic story titled “Marilyn Monroe admits she’s the nude blonde of calendar.”

The reaction was almost uniformly positive, transforming Monroe into an overnight Hollywood star and “it changed forever the country’s perception of sex and nudity and what actors and actresses could do,” Vudrag said.

The display, which runs through Saturday in San Francisco at the Sarah Stockings Gallery, is a chance for art connoisseurs to view the iconic calendar images in their original state, seeing the intricate painting details that were required to develop and manufacture calendars for decades.

The exhibit will next be on display in Las Vegas from 13-15 August before heading to Chicago and New York in mid-to-late September.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Joseph Mayton in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Friday 7th August 2015 17.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010