BEHIND ICONIC PHOTOS: Marilyn Monroe’s “flying skirt”.

Iconic photos can capture a moment in time that mark an entire era and become part of collective memory. The images we are sharing with you today were taken by Sam Shaw as part of a photoshoot for the film “The Seven Year Itch” (1954), starring sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. Even if you haven’t seen the film, or don’t even know about its existence, you surely know the photos. That is what makes them iconic.

If you enjoy this type of article you won’t want to miss our last Behind Iconic Photos blog post about Winston Churchill and the one about the heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

Marilyn became a dear friend to Sam Shaw and to his entire family.


Sam Shaw was born in 1912, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in the New York neighbourhood of Little Italy. Since he was a child, he was drawn to the arts. Coming from a poor family and without money for material, he gathered tar from the streets of New York to make sculptures as a means of expressing himself. As he grew up, his passion and persistence guided him to make his way in pursuit of his dreams and by the 1940s he was a talented photojournalist traveling all over the United States capturing its colorful lifestyles and recording part of the American history.

“Sam’s interests and talents covered a wide array of subjects including music, theater, sculpture, painting, literature, journalism, as well as social and political activism.” – From the Shaw Family Archives.

The iconic “Flying Skirt” Photo

behind_iconic_photos_marilynMarilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch, Director: Billy Wilder, 1954. C. Sam Shaw Inc.- Licensed by Shaw Family Archives, Private Collection. 

In the early 1950s, Sam Shaw moved to Hollywood to work in stills photography for movie stars and for various film sets. He was hired by the studios to promote their productions, to portray the best sides of the stars and help them advance in their careers. Throughout his work, Shaw established lifelong relationships with actors and directors, got deep into their lives, learned their secrets and often gained not only their trust but also their friendship.

He was appreciated by the stars as he portrayed a “real” version of their daily life, showing their human fragility, as opposed to the false glamorous version that the film industry used to sell.

In a few years he had met, photographed and become acquaintance with Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando and John Wayne, among others.

iconic_photos_marilynmarilyn_monroe_iconic_photosPhotoshoot by Sam Shaw of Marilyn and husband Henry Miller in their country retreat on Tophet Road in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Marilyn and Sam met on the set of  ”Viva Zapata!” in 1951 (starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn), while Sam was working as still photographer for the film. By that time, Marilyn was dating the film’s director Elia Kazan and visited the set often, so she and Sam started to chat between shots and Marilyn (who was then unemployed) was asked by Kazan to drive Sam Shaw to and from the set daily, because he as a New Yorker and didn’t have a driver’s license. Thus their friendship began.

Three years later, in 1954, director Billy Wilder was filming a scene of the movie “The Seven Year Itch” starring Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe, now famous.

The shooting was held in front of a movie theater on Lexington Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Street in New York City. Sam Shaw was hired as a special still photographer and during the shooting, he came up with the idea to use the image of the skirt blowing suggestively showing Marilyn’s legs to promote the film.

Sam Shaw was a creative mind. He didn’t wait for art directors to tell him what to do or to get assignments. Sam chose that particular subway grate for the iconic photo shoot, as it was a place had walked by countless times, so he was aware of the updraft of air felt every time a subway passed underneath.


Filming of Subway Grate Scene, Seven Year Itch -1954.  All photos licensed by Shawfamilyarchives

The action was repeated many times and each one of them, the breeze from the subway passing below their feet lifted Marilyn’s white dress, mesmerizing a crowd of lucky bystanders and the accredited press. The footage was unusable because of the noise of the crowd and the director had to re-shot the scene on a closed soundstage in Los Angeles. But that day in New York, Sam Shaw took his most memorable picture, creating the most iconic photo of his friend Marilyn Monroe. This iconic photo raised all the names of the actors involved in the film; all but Marilyn’s.

“In the long run, in the battle with the big studios, in the battle for life, she lost. …” – (Sam Shaw about Marilyn Monroe).

In those days the main task of stills photographers was quite clear: to look for images with punch to be distributed among the printed media to catch the public’s attention and seduce them to buy the final product, which was the motion picture. They played a decisive role in the making of Hollywood cinema during its glory years. The companies printed thousands of copies of each photo and, to ensure that they were reproduced and displayed as many times as possible, released them from copyright. Because of this, some of the photographers remained anonymous for many years.

© The photos by Sam Shaw are licensed by Shaw Family Archives, Ltd.


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