One of the most iconic images in modern photography comes from the movie poster for Stanley Kubrick’s film adaption of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial book Lolita. The young actress who embodied this mythical nymphet was Sue Lyon. In Stern’s photograph, her gaze meets the viewer’s straight on through the reflection of a rear-view mirror, peering at you over red hearts, lips pursed on a red lollipop. The image is provocative, confrontational, sensual, challenging.
In 1960, Kubrick asked his friend photographer Bert Stern to take some pictures of the 13 year old actress he had cast in his upcoming film to generate some pre-filming buzz. Stern had already made a name for himself with his photographs of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, at the time the most controversial couple in the world. His photography was candid, intimate, larger than life. With only a few notes from Kubrick and some of lines from Nabokov’s novel in his head, he took the young actress and her mother out for the day to capture the mood of both the novel and the movie that had yet to be made. Stern stated that going into a 5 and dime store to buy props for the shoot he saw young girls wearing heart shaped glasses and knew instantly that was what he needed.
The pictures taken that day have revealed themselves slowly over the years. Some were initially published in 1960 in Look Magazine, others have been published in different retrospectives of Stern and Kubrick since. Stern, using a 35 mm camera to capture the ‘snapshot’ look he wanted, said he wanted her to look like a girl you see once, glancing around, but that fleeting memory of her stays with you. Lyon is the definition of a nymphet, lounging, playful, innocent with unwitting sensuality. The pictures’ sexuality is all within the viewer’s perception, where the mind decides to place them between child and woman. They remain to this day aesthetic defining for artists, models, designers, photographers and girls obsessed with this complex literary character.