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Tom Kelley Sr. (1914 – 1984) is probably best known for his iconic 1949 nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe; posing with arm outstretched against a scarlet background. In 1953, this image became Playboy’s first ever centerfold in it’s inaugural issue. So Kelley’s photograph has become one of the most viewed nudes in history and, as Norman Mailer once wrote, is ‘breathtakingly beautiful’.

Tom Kelley started his career as an apprentice at the studio of the chief instructor of the New York school of Photography. Educated in technique and photographic etiquette, and already displaying a unique eye for composition, he was recruited by the Associated Press news agency. He was still in his late teens, but found himself recording some of the most sensational events of the 1930s, such as the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and the arrest of murderess Winnie Ruth Judd.

He soon moved on, landing a prestigious position as a photographer with society magazine Town and Country. As his lens focused on socialites, political leaders, movie stars and other celebrities he went West, with his brother and early photographic partner, Bill, to take pictures at some of the most expansive ranches in Arizona and New Mexico. Then, after visiting Los Angeles, the brothers realized it would be a great place to work, so they packed up, moved and set up a new photo studio in Hollywood. There they caught the attention of the movie industry bosses and over the next few years almost every major star of the era came into Tom Kelley’s viewfinder.

Although the nude portrait of Marilyn is his best remembered image, Kelley shot everyone from Winston Churchill and JFK to David Bowie and Greta Garbo over the course of his career. And while the vast majority of his work involved advertising, within the movie business, he had developed a distinctive line in nude photography and worked with some of the most beautiful, aspiring actresses of the day.

One such was Jane Russell. She had been encouraged to earn some money on the side as a model and found herself on an assignment to advertise the latest lines in swimsuits and sportswear. Convinced that the session would be an embarrassment, she was fearful of seeing the results. The way she remembered it, ‘she had never felt so vulnerable in my life’. Posing in a swimsuit under studio lights, she could only think of the nickname she had been given by the boys at her High School: ‘Bones”. But, as she recalled more than forty years later, ‘I was thrilled. I didn’t look so skinny after all.’ To her, the explanation was simple: ‘Tom Kelley was some photographer’.

Between assignments for movie companies, Kelley built up an impressive portfolio of advertising work and it was soon apparent that there was good money to be made from glamour photography; ranging from slightly risqué portrait shots through bikini pictures to nudes. The America of the 1940s and 1950s was awash with men’s magazines that have long since been forgotten: Gent, Modern Man, Conoisseur’s World, Rogue, Ecole d’Art and Escapade, to name but a few. As they competed for readers and exclusive shots Kelley’s technical expertise and unfailing charm won him hundreds of glamour sessions.

‘He was very personable, very charming, and very professional,’ his son, Tom Jr., remembers. ‘And he was very creative, which I think the models appreciated. He was expert in establishing the perfect atmosphere in the studio; he’d play jazz records to set the mood, and then his charm and talent did the rest.’

Some shots would be commissioned by one of the glamour mags, with a new model selected in advance; others were more serendipitous, when women keen to expand their own portfolios would pose nude, in the hope that their pictures would be chosen for a magazine or a calendar. Several companies specialized in providing glamour calendars for exclusively male environments – offices, workshops, anywhere that a photograph of a naked young man would not arouse the outrage of respectable American society.

When Marilyn Monroe died in 1962 Tom’s 1949 nude photographs of her would link their names in every obituary and biography. ‘I thought of her as a friend’, Tom said after her death, proud and amused that their brief collaboration should attract such notice. Maybe it is unjust that such an illustrious career as Kelley’s should be remembered for a single session; but such is the magnetism of Monroe, even half a century after her death, that Tom’s name seems destined to be linked with Marilyn’s for as long as she remains an icon of glamour.

Yet as Tom Jr. recalls, ‘Dad didn’t like people to think that cheesecake was all he did. In his later years, he didn’t want to be associated with it at all. Even when he was working regularly in that field, it probably only made up 20 percent of his assignments.’ Even so Tom Kelley’s photographs now provide a graphic history of the American male imagination, and of the changing nature of eroticism.

The accent was always on glamour, never vulgarity; but the style of glamour changed through the decades. The 1940s portraits have an air of classicism. It’s not impossible to imagine many of them as statues in ancient Greece or Rome. Next comes the era of the exotic, of leopard skins and fur, French lingerie and exquisite furniture. And then, in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the mood is one of freedom; the pose more spontaneous, the make up and hair almost natural. And the sets reflect the spirit of the age; transcending the genre for which they were intended and veering towards experimental art.

‘For Tom Kelley, the artistry was both natural and accidental; he was creating work for the moment, not for posterity, but with a talent and a technical that ensured his photographs would last.’

Tease and Cake

01 Dec, 2014

John Coppinger