Lawrence Schiller Talks to Elizabeth Avedon
Lawrence Schiller and Marilyn Monroe on the set of Something's Got to Give, 1962. The film, which was never finished, would be her last © Lawrence Schiller/Courtesy TASCHEN
Lawrence Schiller and Steven Kasher. Photo © Elizabeth Paul Avedon
"This picture was never published. It comes from a contact sheet which she killed all but the one frame. She said, “Oh you’ll never get a good picyure from that angle. Go over there where the light will be better and I’ll show you what a good picture is. Then she turns and that’s that."
Larry met Marilyn Monroe when he was 23 years old. "This is me on the Colorado River in 1960"
Lawrence Schiller and Marilyn Monroe on the set of Something's Got to Give, 1962. The film, which was never finished, would be her last © Lawrence Schiller/Courtesy TASCHEN
"I used to say when I was younger that Marilyn was the only woman I ever photographed that could take the camera and make it come. She knew exactly what to do." – Lawrence Schiller on Marilyn Monroe
Lawrence Schiller’s life has followed a larger trajectory than most and this summer will be no exception. Starting out as a successful photojournalist with Look, Life, Paris Match and more, Schiller made a name for himself with exclusive photographs of Marilyn Monroe, many taken on the set of her unfinished last film, George Cukor’s Something’s Got To Give (1962). He also photographed some of the most iconic figures of the 1960s, from Lee Harvey Oswald, Robert F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali to Paul Newman and Robert Redford. He is a five-time New York Times bestselling author and award winning film producer, director and screenwriter; his collaborations include the Pulitzer Prize-winning book with Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song. He’s won five Emmys and a feature-length documentary he directed won an Oscar. He also founded the Norman Mailer Center and Writer’s Colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
The theme for the 2012 Cannes Film Festival is Marilyn Monroe and it is the 50th anniversary of her tragic death - perfect timing for Taschen Books to introduce Schiller’s Marilyn & Me: A Memoir in Words & Photographs (Hardcover in clamshell box, 11.4 x 15.6, 210 pages, an edition starts at $1,000), at the opening of Schiller's exhibition in Cannes. On May 31 the exhibition will open at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York, his first solo show in the U.S. It features over fifty of Schiller’s iconic images of Marilyn Monroe—many of which have been newly discovered in his archives. Marilyn & Me, his eleventh book, will be published simultaneously, in two editions, by TASCHEN and Nan Talese’s imprint with Doubleday. Shown for the first time will be his original proof sheets with Marilyn’s rejection markings and scrawled notes.
“Marilyn & Me is a memoir in words and photographs, an intimate story of Monroe before her fall and a young photographer on his way to the top. Schiller’s original text and extraordinary photography is a story that has never been told before, and he tells it with tact, humor and compassion. What emerges during the final months of her life is a portrait of an artist self-aware, in control of her image, yet fragile and vulnerable, and uniquely touching."
I spoke with Schiller just before he left for Cannes. It was hard to catch my breath while listening to his sensational stories of photographing Monroe. A friend described Schiller as one part Weegee (the world's best self-promoter); one part snake oil salesman; and a very large part Hunter S. Thompson (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas). Another said I should title this “The 10 Lies of Lawrence Schiller.” His story is fascinating.
EA: When I first heard of the possibility of interviewing you, and before I knew there was a Vanity Fair cover piece, all I could think about was asking you what it felt like to be in Marilyn’s presence?
LS: Number one I was scared shitless. I was 23 years old. I had seen her on the cover of Time Magazine when I was in college. I had already photographed some celebrities like Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick and Julie Newmar for Life Magazine, but I ‘d never photographed somebody who had been photographed by every photographer in the world. By the time I was introduced to her in 1960, she had been photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Milton Greene, Philippe Halsman, Richard Avedon, you just name it. Here I am a 23-year-old kid out of college becoming a photojournalist and I was scared shitless. So when Johnny Cook from 20th Century Fox introduced me to her, he said, "This is Larry from Look Magazine. He’ll be around for a few days." She said, "Hi Larry, I’m Marilyn." I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I’m the Big Bad Wolf.” I was so scared I don’t even know where the words came from it just came out. And then she looked at me and said, “But you’re too young to be that bad.” I said I’m 23. Then I think she said something like, “What movie did I make when I was 23,” and she named a couple of movies she made. So that’s kind of how I remember it. But that was it; I was really scared.
I learned very quickly that Marilyn knew more about photography than I did. She’d been run over by so many trucks in her life and survived them. Hungarian photographer Andre de Dienes lived with her 24-7, nurtured her first five years. He taught her how. He used to take her out to the desert in Red Rock, California and photograph her every which way. She had a big mirror next to his camera so she could see what she looked like. So by the time I get to her, she knows more about photography than I do.
In 1972, when I did the Marilyn book with Norman Mailers text and twenty-four photographers, I discovered that photographers were just mechanics with Marilyn. You put her in front of the camera; she knew exactly what she was doing. When Dick Avedon photographed her, he did those intimate portraits of her, but then he did her vamping all the other women of the world; you know Marilyn knew how to pose. I think she was different people to different photographers. She reinvented herself depending upon who was shooting her. Take Milton Greene’s pictures of her in the black. That’s him recreating the Marlene Dietrich pictures that he did, that's Marilyn Monroe taking it a step further. Yes, you could play music; yes, you could fill her up with Dom Pérignon; and yes, photographers had to know lighting; but you got to tell Marilyn Monroe what to do? No way!
EA: Was she one of those people that looked amazing on film, but ordinary in person?
LS: To me it was the opposite. Marilyn was right there, right in your face. You could really feel the pores on her skin. Some people when you photograph them, their skin becomes for lack of a better word, dead; there's a flatness to it. There was never a flatness to Marilyn Monroe's skin. It was alive. She was constantly alive. She could look anyway she wanted. She certainly had professional makeup people, but I saw her doing her own makeup many times.
EA: How did the Taschen Book come about?
LS: I decided to do the book in July of last year and I got the pictures out of storage. Then I asked Playboy to send hi-rez scans of some of the ones they had that I didn’t. I hired an Art Director in August to layout the book just for presentation, not to be published. On Thanksgiving weekend I presented it to Benedikt Taschen. I wrote 30,000 words, he read my text and agreed to publish it. In January I told Benedikt I was unhappy about one aspect. Four of my last five books have been on the the New York Times Best Seller list. I said, "A book for a thousand dollars is not going to be on the the New York Times Best Seller list so I want to take the text and publish it as a separate memoir." It had never been done before; the same text, same title, two books released the same day; one for $1,000. and one for $20.00. He said, "If you can convince a publisher to do that, that’s fine." So I sent it to Nan Talese on Martin Luther King weekend and two days later she sent me an email that said, “We want to publish this book”. She broke every production rule and less than four months later the book is being published simultaneously with Taschen. The Nan Talese book (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday / Random House) just has twelve little photos by the title page like postage stamps, but it’s all text. The TASCHEN book is all photos with text.
EA: Are there any rolls of Marilyn unedited or undeveloped?
LS: I think there are probably some unedited Marilyn somewhere. As an example in the new book, there are at least thirty images that came from the shooting for Look Magazine. I’m not exaggerating, until last year I had never looked at that shooting since the day the film was sent into Look Magazine and Marilyn approved the contact sheets. They went into the Look Library, I owned the copyright. Look ran one picture of mine, some with Bob Vose, some with Guy Villet and John Bryson, who was a God to me. I just never looked at it. Now I look at it and I come up with this image, the first picture I ever shot of her. This picture was never published; it’s on the cover of the Talese book. It comes from a contact sheet she killed all except the one frame. She said to me as I’m shooting, “Oh you’ll never get a good picture from that angle. Go over there where the light will be better and I’ll show you what a good picture is”. Then she turns and that’s that. Over fifty-two years I never looked at this contact sheet.
EA: Did you have any idea how important the images would become?
LS: When Marilyn was alive, we understood how important the pictures were, but she used them as a weapon against 20th Century Fox to prove that she had the ability to garnish publicity. When the thing started like a snowball coming down the hill, then of course there was further use of the pictures in Playboy and things like that. I think that she got upset that it didn’t add to the credibility that she was a fine actress. Like "I’m only good for my body." I don’t think she had thought it through completely. It didn’t work against her, but it didn’t help as much as she thought it would.
In those days, if you sold a picture for a cover for a thousand dollars, that was a lot of money; so a spread for Life Magazine for six or seven thousand dollars, that’s a lot of money. The American Society of Magazine Photographers day rate was $100. a day in those days, so when we did like $80,000. worth of sales off basically one days shooting, next to David Douglas Duncan’s pictures of Picasso, probably the highest amount generated from one days worth of shooting. If you have exclusivity, you're able to control the market. I looked at pictures then, not as art, but as a commodity. My father was a merchant; I grew up behind a sales counter in a store, selling sporting goods and cameras, so I always looked at my photography as a product. I was in a childhood accident and lost the sight in my left eye. My father gave me a camera. I used to ride my bicycle to automobile accidents and photograph skid marks and then sell the pictures of the skid marks to insurance companies. That’s how I earned enough money to buy my first car. So you can see even from that I’m looking at photography as a commodity, as a product.
I never even looked at the Marilyn pictures as anything artistic. I remember the thing that really blew me away, I had this image I took of Buster Keaton and one day I walked into Sammy Davis, Jr.’s home and there it was framed on the wall in his den. I just looked at it on the wall like a piece of art. It was the first time I ever realized that my pictures were something more than just that.
I did a picture of Marines training for Viet Nam at Coronado They’re all in mud and the mud is frozen around them and they look like statues. That wound up with several museums asking for prints. I just donated them to the Museums; I didn’t know you could sell it to them.
I was so eclectic; I was just all over the place. I could take portraits, at the same time I did sports, at the same time I would jump out of a plane skydiving; so being eclectic worked against me. If you are one person and do one thing, then you build a brand; whether it’s Mapplethorpe, Neil Leifer, or whoever, you build a reputation. I was all over the place; I never built a brand.
I had three Gods in my life in Photography. One was Yousuf Karsh, one was W. Eugene Smith and one was Dick Avedon. There was another one who was a kind of semi-God, which was Hiro, who was Dick’s assistant for a lot of years. Few people know of Hiro; he did extraordinary work but kind of faded from public view.
I was the type of photojournalist who parachuted in and maybe did two hundred assignments a year. I didn’t really understand the importance, if there is an importance, to my work. When I would edit color pictures, I would have a light table with my 35mm Kodachromes or my Ektachromes, which usually came unmounted, and if I didn’t like the picture, I just threw it in the wastebasket. Proof sheets were a little different, negatives were a little different, but I have virtually no color archives at all because I just didn’t understand their importance.
I would sometimes shoot so much, the film was sent in undeveloped to the magazines. I own the copyright to all my pictures; I wasn’t on staff. Let’s take Nixon, who I covered for a number of years for Paris Match. I would send in a hundred rolls of film, and I’d see the choices in the magazine. Six months or a year later the contacts and negatives would come back. I never looked at them. I have over 400 rolls of film on Nixon and there are only three images that I’ve ever looked at to see if maybe there’s a better frame next to it because those were the images that were published. Now I’m starting to look at my work. I’d say 80 to 90 percent of what I’ve photographed I’ve never looked at in my life. Never looked at. To me it was, “What’s the impossible and can I make it possible” or “That can’t be done, well then how am I going to do it?”
I did an essay on LSD in Life Magazine in 1966 with Timothy Leary. I’m going to do a book with the Estate of his ’66 trial in Laredo with Ralph Metzner and Billy Hitchcock. There are forty or fifty images out of 700 rolls of film; I have no idea what’s on the other rolls of film. What was the important picture at the time you took it and what’s the important picture 50 years later; it may not be the same image. Part of what I’m struggling with is where do I have the time, where do I have the patience to look at my archives. There are 1,100 boxes in storage, all numbered. There is a database of what’s in the boxes, contacts, negatives.
I think I have a working title for my biography, which is, “The Lies I Told to get to the Truth”. Somebody else suggested the book be called, “Coming Clean”. But I’ve sat with people like Andropov [General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] when I was making the film “Peter the Great” and I made this mistake. I said, "Obviously the Soviet Government decided to trust me because you’ll allow me to make this historic film." And he looks at me and he said, “The word trust doesn’t exist in my dictionary, but I decided to gamble with you.” So I think that’s kind of really interesting; that people gambled with me a lot. Those that gambled with me, won, certainly writers like Norman Mailer and Albert Goldman, people that were very honest about me.
I have been criticized for my methods. A good friend of mine, who will remain nameless but you can figure it out, was out of work. He said, “I need to get a job, I need to write a story about you. Would you cooperate? I may have to write something nasty. What should I call you? An eel?” I said, “No just call me a carrion bird.” Well, that was the headline. I gave him the title. He did this big story [Schiller was called a carrion bird in a New West article by Barry Farrell] and then he wanted to work with me on two of my books. Because he’s my friend, I didn’t think of the repercussions; I didn’t think twenty years later somebody writing about me would research all the things that were said about me. Esquire once did a profile with a piece of art of me standing in the gravestones of Lee Harvey Oswald, Lenny Bruce and all of the people I did projects on. What’s interesting is while I’m doing a project there’s lots of criticism because maybe my methods are not as structured as corporations, but usually when the project comes out, the criticism seems to fade away.
Just take The Executioners Song as an example. Sneaking into the prison, buying the rights, everybody was tearing me to pieces. I interviewed nearly one hundred people and Gary Gilmore in prison. I went into the prison as a consultant to the lawyers. I would submit questions to Gilmore in writing and he would write on yellow pads the answers. Everything is documented. Everything was taped. All of that exists in the archives. I owned the book and the motion picture rights, but I was smart enough to know that I didn’t have enough life experience, so I hired Norman Mailer to write the book. After the book won the Pulitzer Prize, Norman wrote the screenplay which was not difficult because it’s narrative. I produced and directed the film. Tommy Lee Jones won a Best Actor Emmy.
Take the O.J. Simpson case where I ingratiate myself. I agreed to write Simpson’s book which helped pay for the defense. I know that’s going to cast a shadow over me, but I also know that I’m going to be able to come back with a story that is impossible for any one else to get. Of course I stay with it, I become an unofficial member of the defense team; I edit the Fuhrman tapes for the Court; and I even set up the sound system in the Courtroom for the jury to listen to. I’m the Jack-of-all-trades. And when the case is over, I write the book "American Tragedy" which becomes a number one best seller. The New York Times and other publications said it’s the best book focused on the case. I had the inside scoop. I saw it happening from the inside therefore I could write about it with strength and confidence.
You're looking at a cube from all different angles. It looks this way from this way; it looks that way from that way. I never thought I was an artistic photographer. I felt I was a very good technician. Technically I could pull off anything, technically maybe Mark Kauffman was better than me, Ralph Morse was certainly a genius at Life, but technically I felt I was pretty close to unbeatable. I was never given the opportunity to shoot long essays. LSD comes the closest. I wanted to be Eugene Smith spending six months on an essay. I’d love to do "Albert Schweitzer, a Country Doctor," but that wasn’t what Life had cut out for me in the Sixties.
I want to end this on something I think is important. There were times when Life Magazine wouldn’t give me the assignment. I remember the Seattle World's Fair, I was told, “This is not for you Schiller.” They had five other photographers. I went up there anyway. I’d just shoot, shoot, shoot and turn in the pictures. I got more pictures in the layout than any other photographer because I looked at everybody else. I saw Ralph Crane is shooting this, Don Cravens is doing this, J. R. Eyerman is doing this. I said how am I going to look at the Worlds Fair different than the way those guys are looking at it? I’m not going to look at it the same way. Therefore the opening double page spread is mine in the story and a lot of very fine pictures because I approached it photographically quite different.
A lot of it was problem solving, a lot of it was exclusivity. I got on a plane to Rome with Madame Nhu [First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963] after her husband had been assassinated and I bought the rights for $50,000. I didn’t ask the Saturday Evening Post permission; I just knew I’d talk them into it because it's a story nobody had. $50,000 would be cheap.
When Bob Jackson shot the famous picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, I was in the basement but I didn’t get a clear shot. I went to the newspaper and I saw the print coming out of the hypo. I turned to the Picture Editor of the newspaper and asked, “What rights are already committed?" He said, "AP owns the newspaper rights and we’re running the front page." I said, "Well, who owns magazine rights world-wide?" He said, "Nobody does." I immediately say, "Newspaper rights - that's different than magazine rights. How’s $10,000?" He said fine, so I bought world magazine rights. I don’t call the editor and I take the first print, turn it over and I copyright it in my handwriting in Bob Jackson’s name. I have to have that print, the original print, the first print made off that negative, on single weight glossy paper at the newspaper. So it’s a combination, Schiller the photographer and Schiller the businessman.
Marilyn & Me
May 31 through June 30, 2012
Steven Kasher Gallery
521 West 23rd St # 2R
New York, NY 10011, États-Unis
T : (212) 966-3978