Of the great photographers, Philadelphia-born Eve Arnold might be one of the hardest to pin down. Her body-of-work traversed the breadth of contemporary culture, capable of revealing the humanity behind subjects as far ranging as Marilyn Monroe and Malcolm X. The connective tissue between the two ends of this spectrum is born out of Arnold’s talent of reaching into her subjects and pulling the vulnerability to the forefront—for someone as heavily-branded as Monroe, and composed as X, that’s quite the feat. There aren’t many phrases more tired than “a picture speaks a thousand words,” but a side profile of Malcolm, hat tipped down, Nation of Islam ring on full display as he massages the back of his neck speaks subtle volumes about that time in the Civil Rights leader’s life. Arnold’s innate compassion for her subjects extends not only to icons of glamour, artistry and activism, but to the working class, the marginalised, and the ordinary person. Passing away in 2012, just three months shy of one-hundred, the iconic First Lady of Magnum leaves behind an astonishingly varied collection of work that timelessly brandishes
some of the deepest layers of humanity.
To celebrate the legacy of American photographer Eve Arnold, Magnum Photographs shared a series of her most deeply moving images with A Rabbit’s Foot. Printed over the following pages, the photographs chart Arnold’s ability to find candid humanity in her subjects—a sentiment shared by her grandson Michael, who pens a heartfelt tribute to his grandmother…
I used to love listening to Eve’s stories when I was growing up. One story that sticks in my mind is how she captured this image of political prisoners in Russia undergoing ‘hydrotherapy’. Eve was visiting a Russian psychiatric hospital as part of her trip to the USSR in 1966. She was on assignment from the Sunday Times Magazine and was one of the handful of journalists from the West to be allowed behind
the Iron Curtain. She described how, while visiting the hospital, her KGB chaperone was suddenly called away for a few minutes. Eve spotted her chance and rushed down the corridor into one of the off-limit wards. Upon opening the door, she was confronted with this scene of the two political prisoners, heavily sedated, lying side by side in bathtubs. She snapped a couple of frames before heading back to the spot where her chaperone had left her, her heart pounding.
This was by no means the first or last time Eve put herself in personal
danger in the pursuit of showing the real story behind the state-sanctioned version. Her quest led her to up-close and personal encounters with the KKK, Joseph McCarthy and the American Nazi Party (whose leader threatened to turn her into a bar of soap). She rode the New York Subway with the Guardian Angels at the height of New York’s crime wave in the 1980s and she photographed survivalist groups—including one in New Orleans that, according to the local sheriff, could “out gun” the police department.
Although Eve was an incredible woman, unlike the “greats” I read about or saw on TV, I got to know her first-hand. I have many fond memories of the conversations around her kitchen table while eating Ukrainian borscht or potato latkes. When I began my career as an acupuncturist, Eve would recount stories of acupuncture in China that relieved her insufferable back pain. I knew that she was flesh and blood, just like me. That’s what she wanted to portray in her candid portraits of Hollywood stars. Beneath the seemingly god-like image, there is a human with all the fears, sorrows and joys we all share.
“I don’t see anybody as either ordinary or extraordinary,” Eve once
said in an interview. “I see them simply as people in front of my lens.” Whether she was photographing the royals, or a working-class family, what most shines through the images is the humanity of her subjects. That juxtaposition of celebrity with poverty is one of the defining features of Eve’s work; one she talks about in the introduction to her book, The Unretouched Woman(1976):
“When Bob Capa [Robert Capa, co-founder of Magnum] saw my photographs for the first time he said that for him—metaphorically, of course—my work fell between Marlene Dietrich’s legs and the bitter lives of migrant potato pickers. I wonder if he knew how close to the mark he was about me. I want to deal with the ‘migrants’ part first. As a second-generation American, daughter of Russian immigrants, growing up during the Depression, the reality I knew well was poverty and deprivation. So I could identify easily with labourers who followed the potato crop north along the Eastern seaboard, settling in each new area as the harvest was ready for them. Now, about Marlene’s legs—metaphorically, of course. I also grew up with Hollywood movies. Although I was a reluctant host to their imagery, I could not deny their impact on me and on other women. They affected the way we saw ourselves and the way men saw us. The traditional still photograph was an idealised portrait. […] Everything that life had deposited was pencilled out. When I photographed Marlene recording the songs she had sung to the soldiers during World War II—Lilli Marlene, Miss Otis Regrets, etc.—I wanted the working woman, the unretouched woman.”
Shortly after Eve photographed Marlene Dietrich in 1952, Eve was
introduced to Marilyn Monroe at a party in Hollywood. She had seen Eve’s Dietrich photos and said to her “If you could do that with her, just imagine what you could do with me.” The two became friends (“we bonded over the fact that we were both neophytes” said Eve) and she photographed Marilyn several times over ten-years as she rose in fame. Although lucky, if it hadn’t been for Eve’s genuine care for her subject, her relationship with Monroe would have been short-lived. Eve’s most famous quote conveys this ‘secret’: “If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.”
This relationship led to her photographing the most vulnerable
images of Marilyn Monroe, like the hauntingly beautiful photo of her in the Nevada desert on the set of The Misfits. Intimately, Eve describes the actress’s fragility in her book, In Retrospect:
“My most poignant memory of Marilyn is of how distressed, troubled and still radiant she looked when I arrived in Nevada to work on The Misfits. She asked immediately how she looked and she wanted and needed reassurance. It was four years since we had worked together, and she looked into my eyes for a long moment to make sure she could still trust me. Then she drew her breath, sighed and said, ‘I’m thirty-four years old. I’ve been dancing for six months [on Let’s Make Love]. I’ve had no rest, I’m exhausted. Where do I go from here?’ She was not asking me—she was asking herself. This was less than a year before she died. It occurred to me then that when she had lived with the fantasy of Marilyn that she had created, that fantasy had sustained her, but now reality had caught up with her and she found it too much to bear.”
In her 1996 retrospective book, Eve asked “What do you hang on
the walls of your mind?” What hangs in my mind are Danny Pope’s prints of Eve’s photos. I had seen them countless times growing up as Eve prepared for exhibitions. The red glow of Isabella Rossellini, Monroe in the bullrushes, the Chinese lady against the black background. The peaceful scene of the Mongolian woman with her horse. All different, yet all glowing, all filled with something real, something human, something special captured. Because Eve was careful with them—and in her own words, if you are “they will offer you part of themselves.”
If you liked this feature, check out our interview with eclectic artist Francesco Vezzoli here!