Lawrence Schiller has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Two months before Marilyn Monroe's death in August 1962, the American photographer captured her undressing during her last (unfinished) film, Something's Got to Give. These iconic images were then splashed across the globe in 71 magazines in one week, from Paris Match and Life magazines to London's The Sunday Times, making them some of the best remembered images of Monroe.
Last week he was in town to promote The Photographs of Lawrence Schiller, an exhibition of 26 images at Schoeni Art Gallery, highlighting his view of America in the 1960s and showcasing the period's most famous people from John F. Kennedy and Clint Eastwood to Barbra Streisand and Muhammad Ali.
'In those days, I was known as a cover journalist, and I'm not exaggerating by saying I went to 200 assignments a year. I could be in a different city on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday,' says Schiller, who lives in Woodland Hills, outside Los Angeles.
'I would send in my pictures undeveloped and would only see them published. Sometimes it would be two or three years later before I had time to look at everything I shot.'
The Brooklyn-born California-raised native seems much younger than his 71 years. Dressed in a brown suit and sporting a white beard, Schiller comes across as friendly.
His accomplishments are impressive. Starting out as an international award-winning photographer in his 20s, Schiller changed careers in his 30s to be a Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Executioner's Song (sharing the credit with Norman Mailer) and a multiple The New York Times best-selling author. He has six Emmy awards as a director/producer and one Academy Award as an editorial director for the documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest.
During the 1960s, Schiller's photojournalistic timing was uncanny. In addition to shooting the nude pictures of Monroe, Schiller was on the plane to photograph Robert F. Kennedy during his presidential nomination campaign one week before the politician was assassinated in 1968; he was in Mexico photographing Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1968 before it became a landmark cowboy film; and Schiller was ringside photographing Muhammad Ali's defeating blow to Floyd Patterson in Las Vegas 1965 shortly before Ali refused to fight in Vietnam. These images and other defining historical moments of the 1960s are featured in the exhibition.
The exhibition has toured New York's Pop International Galleries, Munich's f5.6 Gallery, Bulgaria's National Gallery for Foreign Art and Beijing's World Art Museum. In collaboration with the US embassy, next year the show will visit nine mainland cities.
Schiller first met Monroe in 1959 while she was having an affair with French actor Yves Montand. Over the next three years, the photographer slowly built a friendship with the actress until August 4, 1962, when Schiller last visited Monroe in her Brentwood, California, home on the morning of her death.
'Those were the days without press agents, hairstylists and makeup people. Celebrities wanted their images a certain way, and photography was a form of publicity, it wasn't like the paparazzi now. Therefore you could build relationships,' he says.
Schiller says during the shooting of Something's Got to Give, Monroe was jealous of Elizabeth Taylor getting US$1 million from 20th Century Fox for Cleopatra, while the studio paid her just US$100,000. When it was time to shoot the supposed first-ever nude scene by a top actress, Monroe was to appear naked by wearing a flesh-coloured bathing suit.
However, Monroe had other intentions. Schiller says: 'I remember she had a bottle of Dom Perignon in her hand and then she looked up at me and said, 'Larry, I'm gonna jump into the swimming pool with this bathing suit on and I'm gonna come out with nothing on. When you put those pictures in magazines all over the world, I don't want to see Liz Taylor in the same magazine that day. I don't want her to exist.' That was Marilyn, very smart, very business[like] and she knew exactly what she wanted.'
On the walls of the Schoeni Art Gallery, Monroe can be seen frolicking in a midnight swim with a coquettish smile and porcelain smooth skin. The large black-and-white and colour silver gelatin prints capture her sweet, endearing quality while conveying a sexual intimacy with the Hollywood icon.
'All of America loved Marilyn because I think she never offended women, there was something about her sensually. I mean, Jayne Mansfield could offend women just by the way she looked,' he says.
'Something else is interesting about Marilyn: you look at a picture of her and she doesn't look dead ... these pictures look like they could have been taken last week, not 45 years ago.'
Mon-Sat, 10.30am-6.30pm, Schoeni Art Gallery II, 27 Hollywood Rd, tel: 2869 8802. Ends Dec 28