Joshua Greene has a loving respect for his father, and not just because the devotion many Hollywood stars felt toward photographer Milton H. Greene (who died in 1985) meant that Marilyn Monroe once bathed and tickled and baby-sat Joshua. Though Monroe did take refuge with the Greene family for a time in Connecticut, the younger Greene, long a respected photographer and photo restorer himself, is more appreciative of the integrity in his father's celebrity portraits. The show downtown at the Benham Gallery through October 27—which includes rare Monroe images that Joshua Greene digitally rescued from deteriorated Ektachrome film—is a glowing tribute to a man who made people out of giants.
"Milton was secure enough to be intimate and vulnerable," his son says. "Outside of being a photographer, he was quite shy in person. And yet behind a camera. . . ."
And yet behind a camera he made people relax. The Benham show highlights the photographer's ability to encourage an exquisite naturalness, capturing the way his iconic subjects' humanity contributed to their seeming other-worldliness, that commingling of flesh and fantasy that made them who they were to us. The photographs communicate a rapturous ease: preternaturally beautiful 18-year-old Grace Kelly, resting her head against a piano; Sophia Loren, earthy yet immaculate in a bursting bodice; a regal profile of Judy Garland taken the day after her triumphant Carnegie Hall comeback, lit by her ever-tentative hopefulness. The casual machismo of his male subjects—Paul Newman smoldering under hooded eyes—is an unexpected commentary on how many of our current screen heartthrobs are only boys playacting.
But it is Marilyn with whom Greene Sr. is most associated, through 53 separate sittings. Their natural affection for one another is obvious—Greene seems to catch everything about her all at once. The results are infused with delight and admiration. Two images in a peasant costume on a movie set show her radiating the kind of supremely confident happiness that most biographers ignore, and a shot of her beaming from a bed on the set of Bus Stop could be the final word on her innocent sensuality.
The show is a colorful essay not only on Monroe's myth but, in a way, on what we're missing in our current popular culture by knowing too much. Milton Greene's work came from an era when photographers could get to know stars before we did, developing with them the larger idea of themselves in a time before, as his son sagely puts it, "celebrities started creating caricatures of their own lives."