Fabled Enchantresses

Richard Avedon, [Marilyn Monroe impersonating Theda Bara], 1958 (1245.2005)

This photograph is part of a series titled Fabled Enchantresses by Richard Avedon and Marilyn Monroe. It was shot for the Christmas issue of Life magazine in 1958. In this picture, Monroe performs as Theda Bara in the role of Cleopatra for the 1917 film titled after the Egyptian pharaoh. Theda Bara is considered one of the earliest sex symbols in cinema. She appeared in silent film acting in roles as a vixen, vamp, and virtuous maiden, which challenged pictured female sexuality through her exotic and strange style.

Avedon’s Fabled Enchantresses series depicts five iconic actresses, also identified as sex symbols, from different periods of cinema. In addition to Theda Bara, Marilyn Monroe embodied Lillian Russell, Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, and Marlene Dietrich.

Avedon developed a style of direction while photographing models in which he encouraged them to laugh, move, dance, and smile. In Avedon’s photograph, Monroe’s transformative style of acting shows her strength in expressing Bara’s aura in a single frame. This dream team proved to be a perfect collaboration to picture archetypal actresses through the decades.

Marla Hernandez, ICP-Bard 2017

About claartjevandijk

Assistant Curator, Collections at the International Center of Photography, New York
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