Sam Shaw Biography

Photographer (1912–1999)
Photographer Sam Shaw is remembered for his iconic images of such stars as Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando. He also produced several films, including 1961's Paris Blues.


Born in 1912, Sam Shaw took photographs of the making of Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950). He then worked on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and photographed Marlon Brando in a ripped t-shirt, which came to symbolize the film. Around this time, Shaw met and photographed Marilyn Monroe, and the two formed a lasting friendship. He later produced Paris Blues (1961) as well as several films by John Cassavetes. Shaw died in 1999.

Early Life

Born in 1912, Sam Shaw grew up on New York City's Lower East Side as the son of Russian immigrants. He loved drawing and painting as a child, and he even made statues out of street tar. Shortly after high school graduation, Shaw shared a studio with famed African American artist Romare Bearden for a time. They continued to work together throughout their lives and collaborated on projects with jazz and literary critic Albert Murray. Many of Shaw's photographs of jazz and blues musicians appear in Bearden's collages.

In the 1940s, Shaw worked as a courtroom artist and then as a political and sports cartoonist and art director for the Brooklyn Eagle. He then became a reporter and photojournalist for Collier's magazine for which he traveled around the United States documenting American life in the mid-twentieth century. These portraits of subjects ranging from coal miners and sharecroppers to burlesque performers and New Orleans' musicians comprise Shaw's "Americana" collection.

Photographer and Producer

Shaw began working as a photographer on film sets in the 1950s. One of his first projects was taking publicity stills for director Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950). The following year, he worked on the set of A Street Named Desire (1951) starring Marlon Brando. Shaw photographed Brando in a ripped t-shirt, creating one of the most famous images of the film star.

A short time later, Shaw worked again with Brando on the set of Viva Zapata! He also befriended Brando's co-star Anthony Quinn, and Marilyn Monroe, who was Elia Kazan's girlfriend at the time and would visit the set. Kazan asked Monroe to drive Shaw to the set everyday and they became friends. Over the years, Marilyn spent time with Shaw and his family—his wife Anne and their three children, Larry, Meta and Edie. Shaw also worked on the set of Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch starring Monroe. He was the special photographer for this film, and it was his idea to set up the famed image of Monroe in a white dress standing over a subway grate and to use the scene and the photographs to create publicity for the film.

Shaw captured other numerous images of Monroe both on and off the set. He once explained his intentions in photographing Monroe. "I just want to show this fascinating woman, with her guard down, at work, at ease off-stage, during joyous moments in her life and as she often was—alone." Shaw also served as a shoulder to lean on for Monroe, according to some reports. He knew her during her marriages to baseball great Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller.

In the 1960s, Shaw branched out into producing. He made the film Paris Blues (1961) starring Paul Newman and Sydney Poitier as American jazz musicians in the French city. The score for the film was composed by Shaw's friend Duke Ellington. Shaw later teamed up with filmmaker and actor John Cassavetes to produce such films as Husbands (1970), A Woman Uner the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977) and Gloria (1980). Cassavetes called Shaw a "renaissance man"; his multi-talented friend Shaw was the production designer for A Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and also photographed Cassavetes' films and designed their advertising campaigns.

Final Years

Sam Shaw died on April 5, 1999, after suffering a stroke. Since his death, Shaw's children and grandchildren have worked to preserve and promote his legacy, and his photographs have been exhibited all over the world.  In 2011, a collection of Shaw's photographs was published in a book entitled Sam Shaw by Lorie Karnath.

Shaw would have turned 100 years old in January 2012; his centennial birthday was celebrated posthumously with special exhibits and publications of his expansive life's work.

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