Virgin On Perfection. Possibly the best photo of a star ever taken.

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Above is a photograph by Steven Meisel.

For many years, in my head, this was also the front cover of Madonna’s second LP, ‘Like A Virgin’. If your memory is better than mine, you’ll already know it’s the image which appears on the back of the album. I guess I subconsciously felt it should have been up front and therefore my brain put it there.

Not that the actual lead image is poor. Quite the opposite. Here Madonna gazes out, in muted monochrome, slightly morose, slightly vulnerable but mostly smoldering. Mischievously, at first glimpse, this principal shot appears to show the singer in a wedding dress, but on closer inspection, that’s not necessarily the case.

Given the album’s title, I suspect we’re supposed to infer she has just enjoyed her nuptials, but are those pale objects really confetti? Or are they simply heart-shaped decals on the lace of her dress? Is she reclining on a silken bed, in preparation for her wedding night – or are those merely the cushions of a plush sofa? And would she really have wed in a belt buckle reading ‘Boy Toy’? Possibly. This is Madonna, after all.

"This shot allows any number of fantasy locations to form in our minds."

No, the first photograph is a tremendous blend of sultry ambiguity and detailed styling. And, as such, is more than satisfactory as a frontispiece for an iconic pop record. Except, when we flip the disc over, we find one of the most compelling shots in cover art history. Indeed, in terms of capturing and encapsulating Madonna, it’s almost perfect. Without any explicit reference, we instinctively know we’re in a hotel room (perhaps it’s the coffee cup and saucer balanced on the sheets). This time, the furniture is clearly a large bed. The bed is unmade, ruffled and as significant as the woman perched on its edge.

The shoot took place at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, but the print allows any number of fantasy locations to form in our minds.

It’s almost impossible to examine this picture and not begin to write a back story. Deciding on the time of day is key. Is it the morning when Madonna has just woken? The afternoon – in the aftermath of a secret assignation? Is she heading into those sheets or out of them?
Perhaps more importantly, who is she looking at? Unlike the preceding shot, it’s not us. But is it her lover, just out of frame? Or the maid? Or a cop? We can’t be sure, but we can’t help guessing either.

There’s an obvious juxtaposition between the two pictures making up the ‘Like A Virgin’ sleeve. A suggestion of the virgin and the whore, the innocent and the experienced, the day and the night – but this is achieved with such subtlety and beauty, it’s almost as if we imagined it.

And there’s another, starker contrast we can’t ignore – between this sublime photography and the ridiculous ‘Sex’ book, released by Madonna in 1992. That publication is tawdry, embarrassing and enormously silly, whereas the back cover of ‘Like A Virgin’ is emotional, sensitive, sensual and genuinely sexy. ‘Sex’ hands us everything on a plate (more than we ever wanted, in fact), whereas this image makes us work, makes us think, makes us wonder. Although Madonna is relatively modestly dressed, thanks to the lighting, the setting, the detail and the suggested narrative, she has never looked more alluring, more desirable.

As her career progressed, it’s a shame Ms. Ciccone didn’t adhere to the artistic principles which make this such wonderful artwork. Because ironically, she comes across as infinitely more mature and sophisticated in these pictures than she does on later albums like ‘Bedtime Stories’ or ‘Erotica’. Nevertheless, I will always give her credit for being the centrepiece of one of the most extraordinary rock photographs I’m ever likely to see.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant


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