Eve Arnold

The Instrument Is Not The Camera: Eve Arnold

If you do a Google image search for Eve Arnold, the majority of the photographs that come up are of Marilyn Monroe. It’s not surprising, considering  she spent ten years documenting the starlet; whether on movie sets, at special celebrity events, or just her everyday life. The photographs of Monroe, however, are just a small portion of her work. There is an incredible diversity to her photography which rivaled any photographer of her day. Her subjects range from migrant laborers to the Queen of England; from prostitutes in Cuba to First Lady Jackie Kennedy. It didn’t matter who the subject was, she treated them all with the same amount of respect and interest, all while capturing thousands of photographs from around the world.

Born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrant parents in 1912, Arnold took up photography when a boyfriend gave her a Rolleicord (the cheaper version of the Rolleiflex) at the age of 34. She had been working at a photo-finishing lab for several years, so she knew the technical side of photography, but she quickly became enamored with the artistic side. She soon ended her studies in medicine, and began seriously pursuing photography as a career, beginning with a six-week course at New York’s New School for Social Research (where Richard Avedon was a classmate). As soon as it was over, she took off and began taking pictures. Her first project was photographing fashion in Harlem. She spent months in places most photographers would never have gone, especially as a white female. She spent the next year and a half in bars, restaurants, church halls; wherever these models were showing their homemade gowns.

Being rejected by most publications in the US because of the subject matter, her husband sent some of her prints to Britain’s Picture Post, who published the story in 1951. She had applied to become a photographer for the Magnum Photography Agency and the publication of these images were a big part of her acceptance. She so impressed the agency’s founders, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, that she became the first woman photographer accepted into the organization, working for them as a free-lance photographer until 1957 when she became a full member.

It was during this time that she began spending a lot of time in Hollywood, backstage and behind the scenes on movie sets. She preferred a more natural style of shooting, capturing images that would tell stories as opposed to the typical posed, studio images, which were so popular then. She was shooting stars such as Paul Newman, James Cagney, and Clark Gable. She became the first photographer of choice for Marlene Dietrich. Not long after, her images began to be picked up by magazines like Life, Esquire, and Harper’s Bazaar.

Arnold fortuitously met Marilyn Monroe at a party where Marilyn told her, “If you could do that well with Marlene, can you imagine what you could do with me?” They soon forged a friendship that would last ten years, until Monroe’s death. It was an entirely reciprocal relationship, both getting what they wanted from the other. They trusted each other implicitly and loved working together. “At photo sessions, she was in total control,” Arnold said. “She manipulated everything – me, the camera. She knew a lot about cameras and I had never met anyone who could make them respond the way she did. So she got what she wanted, because she wasn’t under all the kinds of pressure she felt during a film-shoot: remembering her lines, enduring hours of preparation. With me, she was in charge of the situations.”

The Hollywood life did not mean much to Arnold, however. Her main interest was still, and always would be, people. It didn’t matter if they wore thousand-dollar dresses or picked fruit in the orange groves. Robert Capa once said her work “falls metaphorically between Marlene Dietrich’s legs and the bitter lives of migratory potato pickers.” She believed that all people are equal, and that was reflected in her photographs. She gave each person that she photographed dignity. “Themes recur again and again in my work,” Arnold said. “I have been poor and I wanted to document poverty; I had lost a child and I was obsessed with birth; I was interested in politics and I wanted to know how it affected our lives; I am a woman and I wanted to know about women.”

In the 70s and 80s, Arnold, who was now living in Britain, travelled extensively. She went to Russia to photograph political prisoners undergoing psychiatric treatment. She flew to Afghanistan, Egypt, and the U.A.E. to film a documentary about Muslim women, called Behind the Veil. She also traveled to South Africa during the height of apartheid, and China just to shoot images of daily life. Her desire always to just get to the heart of the individual. “…what you want to do, you want to go as deeply into them as people as you can, but usually what happens, if you’re careful with people and if you respect their privacy, they will offer you part of themselves that you can use, and that is the big secret,” Arnold said in an interview with BBC. She knew that what mattered was the relationship between the photographer and the subject. “If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given,” she said. “It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.”

During the final years of her life, Arnold had finally put down the camera and spent her days putting together books. Her curiosity and care for humanity had driven her for her entire career, but it was drawing to a close. She died three months shy of her 100th birthday in January of 2012. Magnum Photos has nearly 3,500 of her images on their site, which made it almost impossible to pick the few needed for this spotlight. Each series could be a post all on its own, all with their own story to tell; stories of her heart being completely broken in South Africa, of Joan Crawford’s drunken insistence to be photographed nude, or of finding burn marks on the back of her jacket from lit cigarettes being pushed into her at a Nation of Islam rally. Every group of images not only tells the story in the photograph, but also tells Arnold’s own story, a story of a woman who had a passion for photography and a love for people, no matter who they were.

View images by Eve Arnold on Pinterest

BBC Interview with Eve Arnold

Part I  |  Part II  |  Part III

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