Black curtains drape the walls, and 46 photographs of Marilyn Monroe are suspended from the ceiling by fishing line. Interrupting the flow of pictures are props: a shovel and box of photographic paper perch atop a mound of dirt in a wheelbarrow. The event — somehow fittingly held at Las Vegas’ Riviera Hotel & Casino — is billed the Lost Photos of Marilyn, taken by a now virtually unknown photographer who purportedly buried the prints for 30 years (hence the topsoil).
Strangely, it seems like we’ve been here before: Since her death in 1962, the apocrypha surrounding Monroe has included periodic releases of ”never- before-heard” revelations and ”never-before-seen” photos. This time, the central figure is Hungarian-born photographer André de Dienes. While under contract to Vogue in 1945, de Dienes called the Blue Book modeling agency and requested a woman to pose outdoors, possibly nude. The agency sent over Norma Jeane Dougherty, nee Baker, a 19-year-old on her debut assignment.
”At first sight she did not look anything like what I was after much too naive, too awkward,” de Dienes wrote in his photo memoir, Marilyn Mon Amour (an out-of-print 1986 book that includes some photos displayed in the show). Soon, he fell in love with the future Marilyn Monroe, and he shot thousands of pictures of her from 1945 until 1953. Suffering from a ”fit of depression” after a landslide almost destroyed his Southern California home in 1952, he claimed to have buried many of the pictures in his yard — very dramatic. Moreover, the promoters of the Vegas show, which ran Dec. 31-Jan. 4, maintain de Dienes vowed to Monroe that no one would see the prints for three decades.
The promoters, Bob Michaelson and Ed Litwak, obtained 153 photos (only a handful from the nearly 200 published in Mon Amour) from Andre’s widow, Shirley de Dienes, along with a contract giving them licensing rights to the . images. But de Dienes’ wife — who married the photographer less than three weeks before his death from melanoma — tried to stop the show for unspecified reasons after initially sanctioning it.
Whatever the facts of their history, de Dienes’ photographs themselves often fascinate, resurrected, three decades after MM’s suicide, from their own backyard grave.