Eve Arnold Profile
Over the last 70 years Eve Arnold’s photographic career has led her to far-flung corners of the world, and she is known as one of the few legendary female photographers working within the Magnum photo agency. Her iconic images of Marilyn Monroe and her unique approach to every subject she covered provoked Peter Silverton to find out more about her life and work.
Eve Arnold was born in April 1912 – the week the Titanic sank. The seventh of nine children born to Russian-Jewish immigrants, she grew up in Philadelphia, short – 4ft 10in 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, with a small child. In the late 1940s, she was taken up by 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.
For her first job, Arnold 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 which is essential to reportage.
They appeared in the British magazine Picture Post. In 1951, Robert Capa invited her to become one of the first women to join Magnum. The same year, she took her first pictures 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.
The actress ‘caught’ reading James Joyce’s Ulysses or from behind in a bathroom mirror, her dress hitched to her thighs, or pensive on the set of her last picture, The Misfits – where Arnold shot some of her best-known and most moving images of Monroe. 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. 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. The Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, on a macramé chair cover. A street barber in 1960s Afghanistan. Political prisoners in Soviet psychiatric hospitals. Mothers and children the world over, from Cuba to New Jersey to the deepest Chinese countryside. 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 these 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 there from the start, having separated from her husband and moved to London with her 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 the likes of Snowdon and Don McCullin.
She spent hard months in China in her late sixties and helped run Magnum in her eighties. She only stopped hiding her true age when she turned 90. Until recently, she lived in Mayfair, in a book-lined fifth-floor walk-up. Now in a care home, she entertains – in her own sitting room – the friends and family who have always been such a major part of her life. On the wall is what one visitor called “the watchful eye” of that photograph of a young Paul Newman at an acting class.
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