Marilyn Monroe Through the Eyes of John Engstead

In the studios of Hollywood in the early twentieth century, famous actors and actresses lined up to get their portraits taken by photographers. The renowned photographer, John Engstead (1909-1983), took thousands of photos of famous stars on the silver screen throughout his career. Beginning in 1926, Engstead worked for Paramount in their publicity department as an office boy, bluffing his way into a photo session with Clara Bow, the Paramount studio’s star. The year after, in 1927, Engstead was promoted to the position of art director and later, studio portrait photographer.

Instead worked with a multitude of famous actors and actresses over his entire career, his portraiture encapsulating their personalities. The glitz and glamour of old Hollywood come to life in his photographs, manipulating expressions and poses to elevate the subject.

Instead worked with tons of prominent women, such as Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman, and Katharine Hepburn to name a few. One of his best subjects was actress Lauren Bacall, who first gained interest in movies after watching Casablanca, starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart with her mother and aunt.

After journeying to California, Bacall had her first portrait photo session with John Instead. The striking photo of Bacall in a vermillion dress (Fig. 1) for the movie To Have and Have Not was shot during the session. Bacall’s face is half covered by a shadow, her hands hiding behind her with her eyes staring straight into the camera. Her dress accentuates her body, the light highlighting the lines from the dress to make her appear to have the figure of a goddess.

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The expression on Bacall’s face is almost beckoning, luring the viewer in, leading her leg out to emphasize her posture. The black background makes Bacall protrude from the darkness, making the image sensual and mysterious. The photoshoot occurred in 1944 when Bacall was only 18 years old. However, the inexperienced and young woman that she was, Instead was able to bring out a side of her personality that had yet to blossom.

The androgynous beauty Marlene Dietrich was photographed by Engstead on multiple occasions, but in 1940, the actress was sitting for a photo session for Seven Sinners. Obsessed with her image, she would often show a sultry gaze, displaying her control. The feverish photo (Fig. 2) of Dietrich allures viewers, pursing her lips to smoke a cigarette. Her eyes are completely darkened by shadows, the light contouring her face amongst the black background. The image evokes a sinful undertone, with the fishnet gloves and heavy makeup. Dietrich appears to be holding on to a railing, directing her attention towards the camera which makes the photo intimate. Dietrich was an icon of old Hollywood, however, Marilyn Monroe won over fans internationally with her charm and iconic look.

Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane in 1926, was photographed by some of the most acclaimed photographers of the twentieth century, which include Richard Avedon, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Cecil Beaton, and Alfred Eisenstaedt. Even before she was known as Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jeane had her pictures taken and was discovered by David Coroner in 1945. Two years later, in 1947, Engstead was tasked with doing fashion photography, his subject being Marilyn. The white, glamorous form-fitting dress (Fig. 3) illuminated her body shape, her golden hair elegantly pinned up. The photo is formed in which the eye is supposed to follow her face downwards from the mermaid bodice. The blue drapery background mirrors the lines of the dress, with the light forming a sort of halo around her hair. The pose makes Marilyn look as if she was a soprano singer, her lifeless eyes and avert gaze mimicking a mannequin. However, Instead not only focused on actresses but actors as well such as Marlon Brando and Cary Grant.

Marlon Brando originally worked in New York but went to Hollywood when he agreed to a role in the movie The Men in 1950. The next year, Engstead photographed Marlon for another movie, in a tight white t-shirt with his expression directed towards the camera (Fig.4). Instead, has Marlon propped up against a decorative column, creating a stable vertical line. Marlon appears to be showing his muscles, folding his arms together to emphasize his toughness. Marlon was known for his sex appeal and rebellious nature, however, Marlon’s turbulent childhood and constant mental battle with himself reflects in the portrait. He does not appear to be tough, yet more apprehensive and leery, his one eyebrow raised showing his skeptical expression. The background is lighter, different from most of the backgrounds Engstead chooses. The light hits Marlon from the top left, creating a shadow under his eyebrows, making his eyes darker. The photograph, while simple and not as grand as the fashion photography Engstead had done, shows the depth of Marlon as an actor and a human being.

Throughout his career, Engstead worked with numerous fashion magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar. During the 1950s, fashion photography boomed, and magazine spreads were decorated with the latest trends. For a Harper’s Bazaar issue, Engstead took a series of photos of a model in a swimsuit (Fig. 5). The composition of the photo includes three beach umbrellas, one creating an octagon shape around the model, and a model in sunglasses with her pleated swimsuit, sitting sideways to the camera in the sand. The photograph purposely makes the model the center of attention by adding the umbrella to frame the body. The model’s face is not shown, instead, she is sideways, capturing only the swimsuit and sunglasses. Sitting upright with her arms up to hold the sides of the sunglasses, the model can accentuate the way the swimsuit fits on her body. The cover of Mademoiselle 1951 issue (Fig. 6) featured a photograph by Instead of a model in a strapless sheath bathing suit by Cole of California and wearing Max Factor makeup. Again, the model’s face is covered, but only half this time, showing off the red lipstick and eye makeup.

By the end of his career and death in 1983, John Engstead had taken dozens of portraits of famous stars, presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, and even Cher. He was able to capture each individual’s style and charm, even if they were posing for a role in an upcoming film. His works for fashion in the 1950s and 1960s are unique since many of his photographs were shot outside in the sunlight on the Californian coast. Engstead’s way of elevating his subject is superb and his manipulation of where light hits are exceptional. Engstead’s snapshots are breathtaking, ones that shall inspire other artists forever.

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Marilyn Monroe Through the Eyes of John Engstead. (2022, Apr 25). Retrieved from

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