“They were obviously loving somebody I wasn’t,” observed Norma Jeane Baker—you know her better as Marilyn Monroe—regarding the characters the actress portrayed.
However, in her show Hello Norma Jeane, photographer Elaine Sigwald shows there’s much to love about this world famous-icon—who spent a considerable amount of time in Palm Springs.
The show, presented in Archangel Gallery’s middle gallery, is especially timely, as it coincides with Modernism Week and the imminent departure of Seward Johnson’s “Forever Marilyn” from Palm Springs—and it’s especially local, as all but one of Sigwald’s images were taken in either Palm Springs or Cathedral City.
Sigwald goes beyond merely producing photographs of Norma Jeane; she titles each image with an actual quote from Marilyn Monroe. This adds dimensionality to the icon’s mystique and persona, and offers insights into the photographer’s creative process.
The show of 25 photographs includes a grouping of five black-and-white photographs. The remaining prints are in color.
“Whether or not I photo-edit my color prints, I always isolate and intensify the colors,” Sigwald told me. “My goal is to make the colors ‘pop.’
“With the black and whites, there is a balance. I strive to create a ‘warmth’ while retaining the contrast within each photograph. … Using the same technique with each black-and-white image, I ensure that the same balance exists across prints.”
Sigwald notes that she’s very particular about the printing of her photos. “I only use one fine art printer, Gary Kerr (of Fine Art Impressions), who luckily has his studio in Palm Springs. With him, there is partnership; he expertly helps me realizes my creative intent.”
In “I didn’t pay much attention …,” the photographer balances symmetry with complexity quite successfully. The composition—planned or not—contains elements of both Erté and Escher. To create the final product, Sigwald began by extracting a profile image from the “Forever Marilyn” sculpture. After creating a mirror image of the profile, the photographer then fused the profiles so that each face looks outward. A deep black background provides a dramatic contrast to a combination of satin whites, soft pinks and gold. It is Sigwald’s use of colors, attention to details and art-deco quality—especially the shape of the dress—that produce an Erté-esque feel.
In this same image, Sigwald repositions Norma Jeane’s tresses, breasts and dress to force the viewer’s eyes to move across and explore the entire photograph. The skirt balloons out to create a pedestal for the upper half of the image. This attention to detail creates a measured complexity and an elegant simplicity reminiscent of Escher.
You’ll feel like a voyeur with Sigwald’s color image, “I love doing things the censors won’t pass.” The photographer apparently created the image by lying on her back beneath the “Forever Marilyn” statue. Norma Jeane’s legs become structural pillars leading to her lace-trimmed panties.
The skirt, as presented on the top side of the image, looks like the backside of a large, deep-sea-blue fan with the ribs exposed. The bottom section—a trapezoid between Norma Jeane’s legs—has the appearance of deep-blue ink dissipating in water.
At first glance, another image—showing the entirety of “Forever Marilyn,” smiling, while the shadow of a dog approaches—seems whimsical. However, the title—“Dogs don’t bite me. Just people.”—changes the entire tenor of the print: The image becomes telling and almost tragic. The dog becomes menacing, making it difficult to determine whether Norma Jeane’s smile is real or forced.
Most images bring to the show their own persona and unique reality. One, however, seems out of place: the image of Norma Jeane’s Palm Springs house sans memorabilia. The image does project a sense of distance and nostalgia, as well as a longing for privacy, reinforced by the photographer’s choice of title (“I don’t want everyone to see exactly where I live …”). At the same time, this photograph seems incongruent with the other images in the show. The picture is flat and lacks the personality, emotional depth and lyricism present in the other images.
Still, the show is undeniably worth seeing. Michael Fiacco, Archangel Gallery’s director, was spot-on when he told me about Sigwald: “Her technique, intensity and attention to detail make her one-of-a-kind.”
Hello Norma Jeane is on display through Tuesday, March 18, at Archangel Gallery, 1103 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. An artist reception for Elaine Sigwald will be held from 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 15. Archangel Gallery is open every day except for Wednesday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment. For more information, call 760-320-4795, or visitarchangel.marketinghubinc.com.Full disclosure: Archangel Gallery has exhibited the photography of this article’s author.