Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo - Photomontage from 1934

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[K] Before Photoshop and tumblr, there was Edward Steichen (1879-1973) - one of my favorite photographers as well as - ostensibly - the original Greta/Marlene-shipper, predating New Queer Cinema’s lesbian darling The Meeting of Two Queens (Dir: Cecilia Barriga, 1992, 14 min) by almost 60 years with this Vanity Fair photomontage of “The Swedish Sphinx” and “The Blonde Venus”.

Still from Meeting of Two Queens

Still from Meeting of Two Queens

Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich get cozy with each other through Barriga’s clever editing of love scenes from their Hollywood productions.

Even as their respective studios, MGM and Paramount, tried to profit from the supposed rivalry between the two “Nordic beauties”, fans and fan magazines were already more interested in other potential relationships and feelings between their two most celebrated divas. While Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo claimed to have never actually met in person, others were certain their paths had crossed at least once on a European film set. (Those in the know - like our dear readers - where already aware of a very different connection between these two, which didn’t require an intimate meeting, but nonetheless provided for some intimate moments: their affairs with butch aristocrat Mercedes de Acosta.)

In the words of film scholar Patricia White:

A June 1934 Vanity Fair item highlighted for its readers the latest roles of movie royalty Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich as Queen Christina and Catherine the Great, respectively, with “a composite photograph by Edward Steichen,” “ingeniously constructed by superimposing two separate pictures … [of] those rival Nordic deities of Hollywood.”1 The image features all the sensual conventions of black-and-white studio-era glamour portrait photography. Garbo is in passionate profile at the bottom right, wearing black, her head thrown back, fingers spread, eyes half-closed. Dietrich’s face is in the top left of the image, her white blouse open at the neck, but her eyes do not meet our gaze; heavylidded, she looks down and to the side. The stars look for all the world as if they are about to kiss, yet the negative space between these pastiched studio portraits was never to be traversed. Leaving aside the fact that women never kissed in Hollywood, Garbo and Dietrich were constructed as singular, mutually exclusive European divas; they remained rival stars of rival studios. In a queer optical exercise, however, reversing figure and ground, the negative space can be seen as the fullest in the composite portrait, for it is occupied with our desire.

(“Black and White: Mercedes de Acosta’s Glorious Enthusiasms”, Camera Obscura 45 (15.3), 2001.)

p.s.: In case you are wondering why an old dude like Edward Steichen is my favorite photographers, let me refer you to this beautiful picture of Gloria Swanson, this amazing study of New York, as well as this little series of some of the most famous and iconic pictures of Greta Garbo

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