What We Want
Photography changes what and who we desire
Lois W. Banner, professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California, describes the making and impact of Sam Shaw’s classic photograph of Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe stands on a New York subway grate as a gust of wind blows up her skirt. The date: September 15, 1954. The occasion: a photo shoot held between takes in filming a scene for the feature film, The Seven Year Itch. It’s a hot summer’s night in the scene, and Marilyn stands over the grate to cool off. The exhaust from a subway train passing underneath supposedly produces the gust, although it’s actually caused by a wind machine operated by a technician under the grate. The photographer crouching behind Marilyn is among the hundred or so photographers at the shoot, each of whom would produce many variations on the same shot. Sam Shaw, the official photographer for the film, took the most famous one.
In the “skirt-blowing” photo, Marilyn exudes sensuality and transcends it, poses for the male gaze and escapes it, ratifies the Puritanism resurgent in the 1950s by attempting to hold down her skirt, while mocking it through her very pose. Happy and carefree, Marilyn symbolizes post-World War II optimism while countering Cold War fears. Dressed completely in white, with her hair golden blonde and her billowing skirt resembling wings, she might be a guardian angel from the Christian tradition offering protection or the love goddess Aphrodite from the Classical tradition offering up erotic possibilities.
Often a trickster in films and photos, in this instance Marilyn mocks the still-powerful censors from the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Motion Picture Production Code Administration who policed the content of mid-century, mainstream Hollywood movies. Here, Marilyn is in control. She is the woman on top, evoking a central metaphor of Western culture for women’s power. She is the Mère Folle of the pre-modern Carnival overturning the natural order; the sexual tease eluding male control; a variation on the burlesque star who gains power in the process of mesmerizing powerless men. On the other hand, cast in the film opposite the more conventional looking character actor Tom Ewell, Marilyn bestows a renewed potency on him—and by implication all men—through her “dumb blonde persona,” the beautiful empty-headed vixen who is actually wise. The film underscored Monroe’s iconic status by referring to her character only as “the girl.”
Indeed, in the “skirt-blowing” photograph Marilyn might simply suggest a working girl on a trip to Coney Island’s famed Steeplechase Park, trying to hold her skirt down as gusts of air forced through holes in a ramp threaten to blow it up. Sam Shaw conceived the photo-op based on that Coney Island attraction’s risqué feature, although similar set-ups had long been used on vaudeville and burlesque stages and in raunchy pin-up photos to titillate viewers. Shaw thought of the photo as a “one-shot concept” to sell the film.
The shoot itself was a publicity stunt devised by Twentieth Century-Fox publicist Roy Craft. Its time and location were announced in the newspapers. Some 1,500 male spectators showed up, even though the filming was held in the middle of the night to avoid daytime crowds, with Klieg lights providing the brightness of day. Billy Wilder, the film’s director, shot fifteen takes, permitting the assembled photographers to click their shutters between each take. Because the wind machine blew Marilyn’s skirt very high, the censors considered the reels shot in New York too salacious for film, and it turned out that the sound track was filled with noise from the crowd at the filming that was too loud to be erased. Wilder re-shot a more sedate version of the scene several weeks later on a Hollywood sound stage.
By 1954 Marilyn was Hollywood’s pre-eminent star and the nation’s major sex symbol. She was, as an article in Motion Picture magazine titled “Marilyn, Oh Marilyn” put it, “a national institution as well known as hot dogs, apple pie, or football.” She was also a brilliant photographer’s model, acclaimed by the world’s greatest lensmen. Richard Avedon said, “She gave more to the still camera than any actress—any woman—I’ve ever photographed.” Because she had a great talent for directing the entire impact of her personality at the lens, Philippe Halsmann noted, “she was a remarkably gifted and exciting model.” Sam Shaw was a gifted photographer in his own right. Self-taught in his craft, he was a populist who shot sharecroppers, farm workers, and jazz musicians—as well as beautiful women—before he came to Hollywood in the early 1950s and became close friends with Marilyn. He later became a producer and an associate of John Cassevetes in producing his path-breaking films.
The morning after The Seven Year Itch shoot, Fox publicists wired Shaw’s photo to newspapers and magazines everywhere, from New York to Paris, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and cities in-between, fixing the image in the public mind. The drama critic of the Hollywood Reporter called it “the shot heard round the world.” Renowned in its own day, the “skirt-blowing” photograph remains iconic, a major symbol of the American spirit, and of “the American girl.”