In 1948, celebrity photographer Tom Kelley took a photograph of an out-of-work actress; a nude posed with arm outstretched against a scarlet background. That actress was Marilyn Monroe. In 1953, this photo became Playboy’s first ever centrefold in its inaugural issue. Kelley’s photograph has become one of the most viewed nudes in history and, as Norman Mailer wrote, is ‘breathtakingly beautiful’.
This is but one image from a vast, previously unseen archive of Kelley’s visionary nude photography from the 1940s to 1970s, published this October for the first time by Reel Art Press, with an accompanying exhibition in New York.
Tom Kelley started his career as an apprentice at the studio of the chief instructor of the New York School of Photography. There he honed his skills photographing Manhattan’s elite families who presided over the exclusive social scene. Within a few years he had mastered the etiquette and technique of the lensman’s trade and applied them to his work via his innate eye for striking composition. With his unquestionable technical prowess, indelible charm and easy nature he was eagerly recruited by the Associated Press where he broadened his network and reputation capturing images of politicians, socialites and movie stars, before setting up his own studio in Hollywood.
Although the vast majority of his work involved advertising in the burgeoning movie business, he developed a distinctive line in nude photography. His work with the bold and beautiful aspiring actresses of the day on his advertising assignments provided access to the most attractive women on the West Coast, giving rise to his hugely influential and impressive glamour photography portfolio. Kelley was responsible for hundreds of glamour shoots encompassing unknown models to the stellar starlets of the day, including the salacious Evelyn West, the ravishing Norma Brooks and the unashamedly flamboyant Mamie Van Doren.
Collected in this exquisite volume for the first time are over 250 spectacular images spanning Tom Kelley’s most inspiring and arresting work. Over 80 per cent of the images are unseen and unpublished. Also included are previously unseen out-takes from his legendary Marilyn shoot. Beneath the initial allure of the diverse and beautiful models themselves, these images chart the formative graphic history of the lascivious American male imagination and its ever-changing erotic ideal. Discussing the evolution of Kelley’s style, author Peter Doggett writes, ‘The 1940s portraits have an air of classicism … 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 … in keeping with the spirit of the age … And then there are the photographs that transcend the genre for which they were intended, and veer towards experimental art – the almost eerie “doll” portraits, for example, that seem to prefigure the later work of Cindy Sherman.’
Tom Kelley was the godfather of pin-up. His glamour portfolio stands out today for its unfailing reverence for the female form. His distinctive visual accent always emphasised glamour and never vulgarity, which is perhaps why his work remains fresh and stirring today.
Tom Kelley Jr & Tony Nourmand Text by Peter Doggett £45 / $75 288 pp, 250+ photographs; HB; 295 x 245 mm / 11.4 x 10 in. Reel Art Press
If unseen images of the human form interest do see our article secrets of the flesh on the work of Byron Newman ‘The Ultimate Angels’ in 1984.