Icons of Photography: Eve Arnold

Eve Arnold was born on April 21, 1912 – the week the Titanic sank. She was the seventh of nine children born to Russian-Jewish immigrants named Cohen. Her father, a rabbi from Odessa, could only find work as a peddler.

She grew up in Philadelphia, short – 4ft10 in at her tallest. ‘She was a tiny, unaggressive kind of person who you wanted to pick up and be nice to,’ said photographer Elliott Erwitt who knew her when she was starting out. If her size and demeanour evoked trust in her subjects, it was a trust she never betrayed – in nearly six decades of reportage. ‘If you’re careful with people and if you respect their privacy, they will offer part of themselves that you can use,’ she said in a 2002 BBC radio interview. ‘And that is the big secret.’

She came late to the game, very late, having worked as an estate agent’s book-keeper. When she became a photographer – inspired by her experience working as a photo-finisher in New Jersey – she was in her mid-thirties and married, to a man called Arnold Arnold. In 1948, she had her only formal training: six weeks of study at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, under the tutelage of Alexey Brodovitch, the Harper’s Bazaar art director who was mentor to many other great mid-20th century photographers – Diane Arbus and Irving Penn, for example. Richard Avedon was one of Arnold’s classmates.

For an assignment, she took her Rolleicord to a Harlem fashion show. ‘It was daunting to bring my pale face into that all-black audience and get up enough courage to put my camera into their faces,’ she said. The pictures she took were humane, warm, fun but clear-eyed and driven by the nosy inquisitiveness essential to reportage. Her husband sent them to the British magazine Picture Post, which published them – if with unpleasant, patronising captions.

In 1951, Robert Capa invited her to become one of the first women to join Magnum. Her pictures, he said, fall ‘metaphorically between Marlene Dietrich’s legs and the bitter lives of migratory potato pickers.’ The same year, she took her first photographs of Marilyn Monroe, the beginning of a genuinely collaborative relationship which lasted until the movie star’s young death. Through Arnold, Monroe uncovered and explored a persona which drew its almost disturbing sexual charge from the way it patrolled the tantalising boundary between public and private self. Through Marilyn, Eve discovered and explored how to navigate and document that journey into the self – or, rather, selves.

In a very real way, it’s a kind of visual romance. As a viewer, you feel as if you’ve been afforded the privilege of glimpses into these two women’s affair of the heart. These are knowledgable, witty, fleshy, sexy photographs, clear of rhetoric and cliché. If the actress’s mythic status means these pictures overshadow Arnold’s vast body of work, it’s also true that they embody the essence of her pictures – compassionate but delicately revealing.

There are moments such as the time Arnold ‘caught’ Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses or the time the photographer shot the actress from behind, in a bathroom mirror, with her dress hitched to her thighs. Some of the best-known and most moving images of Monroe were the ones Arnold took on the set of the actress’s last finished picture, The Misfits. Magnum had nine photographers, including Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwitt, on the location shoot. Arnold’s pictures were probably the best, certainly the most intimate.

She worked for LIFE, Vogue, Paris Match, Stern and, above all, the Sunday Times Magazine – ‘an adventure playground for people like me’. Worlds passed through her camera. Veiled women in the Middle East. Joan Crawford in an entrapment of mirrors. The Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, in his red and black robes, sat, pot-bellied, on a crocheted chair cover. A street barber in 1960s Afghanistan. A wry Marlene Dietrich in a recording studio, with a music score. Political prisoners in Soviet psychiatric hospitals. A nun making her bed.

Mothers and children the world over, from Cuba to New Jersey to the deepest Chinese countryside. The first five minutes of a baby’s existence, for LIFE magazine. Anjelica Huston, aged twelve, doing a handstand and, later, as a young woman on the verge of her relationship with the great but damaged (and damaging) photographer Bob Richardson.

She took peyote with the Navajo and photographed Vanessa Redgrave’s naked arse. She took pictures of Queen Elizabeth II on the cusp of middle age, in turquoise beneath a rain-blanched sky. She shot Paul Newman at an acting class – white socks and T-shirt, loafered feet on a chair, intense gaze.

If those sound like clichés of colour supplement reportage, that’s because she was one of those who invented those clichés in the 1960s-1980s heyday of British Sunday magazines. She was in the game from the start, having separated from her husband and moved to London with their son in 1962. That was the year the Sunday Times launched its magazine, for which she worked for more than two decades, making and creating a new kind of reportage, along with Snowdon and Don McCullin.

She was based in London for the rest of her long life. ‘I feel at least as much at home here as any place else,’ she said. ‘I tell myself we’re all world citizens. There’s a kind of displacement that takes place, and friends and colleagues become your family.’ She brought an outsider’s eye to her new country – in such simple but resonant images as an old couple at a Royal Academy show or a young woman in her bedsit bath. ‘It’s the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how special it is.’

She found the new in her old homeland, too, uncovering the striking photogenicness of black power leader Malcolm X. She spent two years photographing him, on and off. ‘I think we were both using each other,’ she wrote. ‘I am always delighted by the manipulation that goes on between a subject and photographer when the subject knows about the camera and how it can best be used to his advantage. Malcolm was brilliant in this silent collaboration.’

The work which made her public name was The Unretouched Woman – her first book, of twelve. Published in 1976, its title indicates its profound feminist humanism. When it appeared, she was already several years past official retirement age but far from spent or finished. In her late sixties, she spent hard months in China. In her eighties, she helped run Magnum. Her last assignment was a trip to Cuba in 1997, to rephotograph a child she remembered from her first trip, in 1954. And that was it. ‘That’s over,’ she told Anjelica Huston. ‘I can’t hold a camera anymore.’

She only stopped hiding her true age when she turned 90. Until very late in her nineties, she lived in Mayfair, in a book-lined fifth-floor walk-up. When she finally moved to a care home, she entertained, in her own sitting room, the friends and family who were always such a major part of her life. On the wall was what one visitor called ‘the watchful eye’ of that photograph of a young Paul Newman at an acting class.

She died a few months short of her century, on January 4, 2012.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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