Before photography became a largely digital process, dispensing with the need for negatives and chemicals, highly skilled photo manipulators did with brushes and enlargers what today’s digital retouchers do with a mouse or a Wacom pen. The process was called color separation, and it involved taking a photograph and shooting it with filters in order to get down to a reasonable number of printing plates so that a printed piece could be created. The process could be simple, involving a four color separation, or very complex, requiring many plates, if every single nuance of the original artwork is reproduced. In the case of Marilyn Monroe’s famous calendar photo, where she is stretched out on red velvet, the work was very involved, as clothes were added in order for the photograph to be licensed beyond the calendar and in the pages of Playboy magazine.
Pierre Vudrag, owner of the vintage photography and rare poster company, Limited Runs, spoke recently about bringing the unique negatives to New York City for a limited viewing at the 360 Design Gallery on Charlton Street, and how the plates were accidentally discovered amidst a collection of artwork purchased from the original printing company. The photograph and separations come with their own true Hollywood story. On May 27, 1949, an-out- of-work and broke Monroe posed nude for photographer Tom Kelley at his studio in Hollywood, California. Agreeing to the session under the condition that Kelley’s wife, Natalie, attend the shoot, Monroe signed the model release as “Mona Monroe” and earned a paltry $50. Neither the photographer, nor 22-year old Monroe realized the historic moment they were creating.
Chicago-based printing company John Baumgarth Company acquired the prized “Red Velvet” Kodachrome photograph in 1951. Baumgarth used them to create three iconic images of the bombshell that were then printed and sold in an estimated 9 million “Golden Dream” calendars. Reproducing Monroe’s refined features, supple texture and luxurious tones was no small feat – print artisans painstakingly created and corrected the many layers of film for the full color printing process to make the original Chromalin color proof separations – a masterpiece of printer’s art.
In late winter 1952, the press discovered that the nude model in these best-selling calendars was none other than 20th Century Fox’s biggest star. The Studio’s initial reaction was to deny everything. No major Hollywood celebrity had ever done such a thing. As legend has it, Monroe was instrumental in persuading 20th Century that their inclination to deny the whole thing was the wrong way to address the scandal. Monroe was right. In an exclusive interview with United Press International, Monroe admitted to posing for the photo and explained how difficult her life was at the time. The story “Marilyn Monroe Admits She’s Nude Blonde of Calendar” hit the Wire on March 13, 1952, and was picked up globally. Public forgiveness was swift, and Monroe was further catapulted into international superstardom.
Astute young magazine publisher Hugh Hefner purchased the rights to reproduce the “Golden Dreams” photograph for the inaugural issue of Playboy Magazine in December 1953. In its first printing, Playboy sold over 50,000 copies of Monroe’s issue, allowing Hefner to continue production of the popular gentlemen’s publication and ultimately, grow his brand into Playboy Enterprises, Inc.
Believed to have been lost forever, the Kodachrome and color separations actually remained amidst Baumgarth’s massive print archives until Baumgarth’s assets were acquired in 1988 by the Renaissance Publishing Company but were only discovered in 2009 when Renaissance went into bankruptcy and sold off its holdings. The separations used to produce the large-format calendars are the only known surviving examples that have changed hands through a series of corporate acquisitions.
Vudrag is very excited about the display of the separations at 360 Design Gallery, saying “It is really spectacular to see the detail close up; so much incredible work was done by hand painting and drawing.” There are 21 separations in total, and 8 of these will be on view at the gallery from Friday, September 25th through Saturday, the 26th. The images are mounted in acrylic frames and displayed hanging so the viewer can get the full effect of the process. The entire collection is for sale, and expected to fetch upward of $5 million. Vudrag is hoping for the right offer from a museum or a collector who sees the value in keeping all 21 separations together. New Yorkers who want a chance to see an extremely rare piece of the history of Marilyn Monroe should not miss the two day show.
360 Design Gallery
104 Charlton Street
New York, NY 10014
September 25-26 from 11am-6pm.
The Source for Original & Vintage Posters, Print Art, and Photography