The Photography of Sam Shaw

10:24 PM PST 01/25/2011 by Michael Walker
Sam Shaw

The legendary lensman behind Marilyn Monroe’s most famous photo is celebrated in a new book, the first retrospective of a near forgotten career.

In the iconic image, her white skirt swirls up like a matador’s cape as she fights — reluctantly, it seems — to wrestle it back down. The photograph of Marilyn Monroe, taken at 51st Street and Lexington Avenue in New York as promotion for The Seven Year Itch, is one of the most reproduced shots of the 20th century — and then some. Yet Sam Shaw, the protean photographer, pioneering independent movie producer and all-around bon vivant who shot that and thousands of other indelible photos of postwar Hollywood legends, is so scarcely known he doesn’t rate a Wikipedia entry.

A new book Sam Shaw: A Personal Point of View (published by Hatje Cantz) — which Shaw, who died in 1999, began 20 years ago — presents the first comprehensive retrospective of his Hollywood photorgaphs. Many were taken amid chaotic location shoots, meant to serve no higher purpose than anonymous publicity handouts. But they endure, says Lorie Karnath, Shaw’s collaborator on the project and also a subject of his camera, “because he was an artist first and a photographer second. Sam always followed his compass — he wasn’t looking for the traditional beautiful shot.”

Born in 1912 and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Shaw began as a painter and sculptor and entered photography by happenstance. He signed with Collier’s as a traveling photojournalist during the 1940s, and by the mid-’50s his photos appeared regularly on the covers of Life and Look, providing his entree into the movie industry. His artist’s eye and journalist’s instincts imbued Shaw’s celebrity portraits with a realism that was the antithesis of the self-consciously glamorous style perfected by Hollywood photographers George Hurrell and Ruth Harriet Louise.

Shaw was soon privy to advice from the industry’s greats — and confident enough to ignore it. Preston Sturges told him the most attractive way to shoot a woman was from slightly above, looking down; Shaw countered, “There is a visual truth to an eye level of shooting below and up.” The unvarnished quality of Shaw’s photographs was in sync with ’50s directors, including Elia Kazan, who were striving for a more naturalistic style.

Above all, Shaw loved women and photographing them. Unlike men, women were “completely free. … Good actresses love working for the camera,” he said. They certainly loved working for Shaw. His portfolio is a frieze of postwar cinema’s classic beauties: Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor (“that most beautiful accident of nature,” he called her), Sophia Loren (“supremely sure of herself and her magnificence”), Claire Bloom, Natalie Wood, and on and on.

Shaw shared an almost-telepathic bond with Monroe, in whom he recognized a fellow seeker of love, adventure and knowledge. He met her on the set of Kazan’s ¡Viva Zapata! — a struggling extra — along with Anthony Quinn, and became lifelong friends of both. Shaw photographed Monroe throughout her career and became a confidant during the upheaval of her celebrity, marriages, divorces and alienation from the studios. Shaw encouraged the actress to shed the layers of makeup she wore like so much armor, reassuring her that without it she was still one of the world’s most beautiful women. “She really looked at Sam as part of her family — he was the kind of person who was always there, like an Italian mother, with a pot of coffee brewing,” Karnath says.

Shaw’s friendship with Quinn was bound by both men’s love of art. They shared an apartment on Crete during the fraught preproduction of 1964’s Zorba the Greek. “Sam was Tony’s — I can’t find a better word for it — muse,” says Katherine Quinn, the actor’s widow. “He was like Zorba.” When Quinn despaired at finding his character for the film, Shaw arrived at the apartment one afternoon with a gnarled hunk from an olive tree and told Quinn to get to work. “Tony thought he was crazy,” Quinn says. “Then he started to stare at it and started sculpting.” The distraction worked: Quinn was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Zorba.

Starting in the ’60s, Shaw indulged his showbiz bona fides as a producer, collaborating during the next three decades with John Cassavetes on the director’s landmark independent films including Husbands and Gloria. Shaw and Cassavetes became close friends, and their family lives merged with their filmmaking: Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, usually starred, and Shaw’s children appeared in supporting roles. Shaw contributed to story lines, designed sets and one-sheets and planned PR campaigns (the montage of photos that opens Husbands is, of course, Shaw’s).

The groundbreaking work with Cassavetes provided another compelling spoke in the wheel of Shaw’s artist-hyphenate worldview.  “Wherever we went, he would immediately start incorporating his surroundings and make up a whole story about what was happening,” says Karnath, who traveled with Shaw for 20 years. “His whole life was a storyboard.”      

THE PHOTOGRAPHS

“The Proposal #1,” Marilyn Monroe | Central Park, New York, 1957
While walking together through Central Park, Sam asked Marilyn what she was learning at the Actors Studio. When she responded, “Improvisation,” he asked her to show him. Marilyn grabbed Sam’s newspaper and headed to a bench to read. Later she explained the couple’s intense conversation. Next to her, the man was asking for the woman to marry him. She said she would, but on the condition that he give up his livelihood as a bookie.

Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman and Their daughter Nell | New York, 1959
Shaw had been photographing Woodward while she worked on his friend Sydney Lumet’s The Fugutive Kind, on set, at dance classes and at home in Greenwich Village.

Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn | Playing pool during a break from filming ¡Viva Zapata! 1951
Shaw’s portraits were essential in building the young Brando’s image as an inscrutable anti-hero. He felt this shot on the set of Elia Kazan’s film — which would earn Brando his second Oscar nom — captured him “at the peak of his physical beauty. … To me, he became a present-day vision of the Greek classics.”

Sam Shaw and Audrey Hepburn | Paris, 1957
“Part of the reason Sam’s photographs were so successful was that he was not a self-promoter,” says his grandaughter, Melissa Stevens, archivist at the Shaw Family Archives. “He was photographing some very well-known individuals but also recognized that his role was highlighting what was unique about them. Sam listened and read people very well.”

Lee Remick | New York, 1960
Shaw would waste shots just to get subjects used to the camera and sound. Some became especially animated by the camera’s presence, so much so that Shaw claimed certain subjects “were actually turned on.” He also suggested that photographers study such painters as Frans Hals and William Hogarth, whose work, Shaw said, “captures in flesh and blood the peak enthusiasm, the vivacious moment of the subject.”

John Cassavetes and Peter Falk | On the set of A Woman Under the Influence, California, 1974
“Sam and John were very close — they were both artists,” says director Peter Bogdanovich, who wmet Shaw through Cassevetes. “On the set, he was very unobtrusive. He was very gregarious and open — the opposite of a snob, that’s for sure.”

Gena Rowlands | Los Angeles, 1960s
“You never even knew he was taking a picture — he shot so casually, I never thought of it as posing,” Rowlands says. “So long as he threw out the really awful ones.” Shaw spent plenty of time with his subject: He worked on many movies with Rowlands and her husband, Cassevetes. “I loved Sam, and John adored him. John used to talk to him for ages — they just loved each other. They seemed to always have a subject: art, movies. It was always about something. Sam was part of the family.” Shaw said he believed Rowlands presented herself as “a modern universal woman,” whether in profound Cassavetes roles or lighter fare like the TV series “Peyton Place.”

Lauren Bacall and Swifty Lazar | The Seven Year Itch wrap party, California, 1954
Director Billy Wilder and producer Charles K. Feldman gave Monroe a party at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills upon completion of the film.

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