New York born Sam Shaw was a former courtroom artist and cartoonist turned reporter and photojournalist for Collier’s in the 1940s. In the 1950s, he began working as a photographer on film sets, where he first gained fame with a publicity photo of Marlon Brando in a ripped t-shirt for A Streetcar Named Desire. Afterward, he met Elia Kazan’s then girlfriend Marilyn Monroe.
I’ve posted the above picture before on my facebook page. I said that Sam Shaw’s work with Marilyn Monroe was some of the best photography I’ve ever seen. He captured something when working with Marilyn, something real and honest. A depth probably very few people saw in Norma Jean.
In Shaw’s pictures, Marilyn regains the humanity that has been drained from her over the years. Every caricature of her painted on thousands of low-rent murals, tacky knick-knacks and garish neon signs only serve to cut deeper the divide between the pop-culture icon and the flesh and blood woman she was. Full of joy, fear, talent and vulnerability, all of that complexity is flattened with every half-ass rip-off of Edward Hoppers Nighthawks; you know, that painting where she is sitting blankly next to Bogey and James Dean while Elvis jerks them all a soda.
Sam Shaw’s work continues to remind me the power and purpose of photography. And the more I worry about sharp lenses and full frame cameras, the more I rely on High Pass Filters and Gradient Maps in Photoshop, the more I’m in danger of losing sight of what originally brought me here, to this place. I wonder if, somehow, I’m substituting proficiency for passion.
I didn’t get into photography to produce pretty but vapid, one-dimensional, soulless work, regardless of how technically proficient it is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely happy with the work I’ve been producing lately, I truly am. I’m excited about what’s next. But I never want to lose sight that if the work I create leaves people unmoved, passionless, and is forgotten minutes after they’ve stopped viewing, then it was all for nothing.
Passion trumps proficiency. Vision is more important than gear.
And honest artwork will always out shines the fakes and the phonies.