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Artist with a Camera

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Artist with a Camera

Eve Arnold: a personal appreciation Summer 2021
Arts and Culture

Photographer Eve Arnold was born in Philadelphia in 1912, the fifth of nine children of a not very well-off rabbi. She died in London 100 years later, world-renowned. When, in middle age, her work was exhibited in the museums and public galleries of London, New York, and other great cities, eager viewers would form long lines in the streets. Her genius was to reveal a life in a pictured moment, the flavor of a culture in a single frozen scene.

She was the first woman to join Magnum, the prestigious association of photographers. She was also a pioneer of photojournalism. Arnold wrote admiringly of Robert Capa, one of Magnum’s five founders, that he was a “journalist,” while Cartier-Bresson, another founder, was a “poet,” and “together they made up photojournalism.” Their invention became her vocation.

“For years,” she wrote in her last book, In Retrospect, “I have sought a meaning for the term ‘photojournalism.’ What is it? The dictionary defines it vaguely as ‘journalism in which photography dominates written copy—as in certain magazines.’ The best definition I know came from an article Gene Baro, the art critic, wrote about my work from the catalogue he prepared for my China show at the Brooklyn Museum. He said, ‘The photojournalist doesn’t illustrate a story but explores a subject by way of the camera and provides a supporting text. . . . But the best photojournalism transcends its subject and gives us images that have a timeless quality, so acute visually that no other explanation is needed finally. The art is in what remains when the occasion has faded.’ ”

Magnum “set a very high bar” for membership, Arnold recorded. Technical excellence was a sine qua non. Long before she joined—in 1952, when she was 40—she had acquired a thorough knowledge of the technology of her craft. Early in her career, she had “learned the chemical and physical properties of photography,” working for five years at a photo-finishing plant. But while mastery of the technique was essential, Arnold knew that it was not even a beginning of the mastery of the art. “To learn about the aesthetic and emotional content of a photograph . . . those are subjective values and cannot be taught. One can only dredge up ideas from within oneself and apply them to the real world.”

Throughout her long life, Arnold went on learning about the craft. Toward the end of In Retrospect, she asks: “What drove me and kept me going over the decades? What was the motive force? If I had to use a single word, it would be ‘curiosity.’ Curiosity was a constant challenge. The very unpredictability of photography enthralled me. The possibilities were endless.” In her eight coffee-table albums, she tells her own story. This story is about her and me.

We first met in London in the mid-1960s. She was divorced from her husband, Arnold Arnold; her son was grown, and she was living the life that she wanted to live, alone. I could not guess her age. Her hair was white but long and abundant. She could have been 40 or 60. When she was in her nineties, she did not look much different.

She was good company. She had a great store of anecdotes—funny, sad, surprising—of the famous and the obscure, and she told them well.

In 1968, I invited her to join me and my husband, Gerry, on a trip in a Land Rover through the Kalahari and Namib Deserts. We flew ahead and waited for her in Johannesburg. But she wrote to say that she would not be coming. This was during a brief period when she was fulfilling assignments that did not greatly interest her but that paid too well to turn down. She wrote: “Sadly, I cannot see my way clear to coming with you on our trip through the desert. I realize how much I am missing by not being able to share a marvelous experience with you and Gerry. Here I am taken up with the everyday stories which mean bread and margarine—I cannot think of them as bread and butter stories.”

At that time, most of her best-known photographs were of celebrities. A list would make an almost comprehensive register of the famous of the 1950s and early 1960s: screen stars, TV stars, film directors; ballet dancers and singers; instrumentalists; royalty and politicians; painters and sculptors; dramatists and poets. Some of the names still resonate: Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier, David Oistrakh, Dave Brubeck, Arthur Miller, André Malraux, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Marilyn Monroe, W. H. Auden, Sophia Loren, Marlon Brando, Orson Wells, Andy Warhol, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev.

“I found portraiture perhaps the most difficult part of photography,” Arnold writes in Flashback: The 50s. “In order to get at the person beneath the surface (and avoid the standard ‘mug-shot’) I experimented with a portrait-in-action; the subject is absorbed in some activity or is shown against a background that interests him.”

Film actresses—a class notoriously hard for photographers to please—liked the way that she memorialized them when their thoughts were on something other than publicity. She was even able to gratify the hungry amour propre of aging Joan Crawford.

Marilyn Monroe had asked Arnold to take her publicity pictures when she’d seen her photos of Marlene Dietrich in Esquire magazine; she worked with Monroe on and off for ten years. All the stills of the film The Misfits, written by Monroe’s husband Arthur Miller and in which she stars with Clark Gable, are Eve Arnold’s. Almost every day, some publication somewhere in the world prints a picture of Monroe, and most are Arnold’s.

None of Arnold’s portraits, not even the most candid, is cruel. Even when the subject was the rare person—or personage—whom she did not like or admire, her images were merciful. She liked the human race in general. She felt for people, which is probably why her pictures of them are affecting. Her Hindu women, hampered by clothes from crown to ankle, breaking rocks with picks, trouble you. A starving African infant horrifies you. An English boy about five years old, buttoned up, standing in polished shoes and high socks, clutching the stick of his flag, his expression ferociously resolute as he waits in front of a crowd for someone or something special to come by, makes you laugh.

Her photos of “ordinary people” far outnumber the great: the very old and the newborn; mothers and children; clerks, merchants, factory workers, peasants; monks and nuns; scientists and soldiers; the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken; intellectuals and the illiterate; the desperate and the comic. What you see is what you’ve always known but took no special notice of until now. You recognize it.

I have four of her prints—inscribed on their backs with messages from the artist—hanging on my living-room wall. One, which I am often told is “iconic,” is of a tiny baby’s hand clasping the mother’s finger. And one is a landscape, in color. There’s a crumbling roofless cottage in it and horses grazing. No person is to be seen, but human interest is there—in the small house once occupied and now in ruins.

I also have most of the albums of her work, similarly inscribed. In these, each picture, selected from a series that had first appeared in publications such as Picture Post, Life, and the Sunday Times Magazine, is barely captioned, but all are accompanied by lucid explanatory text. Both the pictures and the texts reflect their maker’s character: confident, courteous, generous, humorous, humane; neither boastful nor self-effacing and never pretentious. Quick to give credit to others where it is due, she writes, for instance: “From Cartier-Bresson I learned the need to try to tell an entire story in a single definitive image.” Her own achievements are candidly recorded and speak for themselves. Together, the texts and pictures compose a biography—a life inseparable from a career, a career that was a life.

Two young models backstage at Abyssinian Church, Harlem,1950 (© EVE ARNOLD/MAGNUM PHOTOS)

We were friends for nearly 50 years. I include the last five years of her life, though we did not see each other then. Being in poor health and needing constant care, she moved out of her Mayfair apartment into a suite of rooms in a nursing home at about the time I left Britain for America. We kept in touch only by e-mail. She made no complaint, but I knew that what pained her most was that she could no longer move about the world with her camera and record the look of it, in its infinite variety.

Through the greater part of those 50 years, we met frequently. She joined in weekend parties at my country house. We called each other often and wrote when one or the other was traveling abroad. She asked me to help her think of a title for an album in which she was collecting her photographs of women. I suggested The Unretouched Woman. She liked it, and in 1976 the book appeared under that title.

Remarkably, we always stood on opposite sides of the wide political divide of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—she on the left, I on the right. We were both deeply concerned with political issues and did not avoid discussing them, but we never quarreled over them.

There were a few on which we agreed. One was the civil rights movement in America. Both of us wanted Martin Luther King’s idea of assimilation to succeed, not Malcolm X’s idea of race segregation. Yet it was not King’s but Malcolm X’s movement that Arnold chose to record—because she thought that Malcolm X’s protests would not be violent. One night after she had dined with him in Harlem, she went walking about the streets. She was spat on and called a “white bitch.” Later she found the back of her woolen sweater full of holes burned by cigarettes. She had been “stabbed” in the back by angry militants. Had the wool been flammable, she might have suffered a terrible death. She could not have foreseen such hostility, nor could she have expected that she would be perceived as an unwelcome interloper in Harlem, which had been the setting of her first photojournalism success—a story about the fashion shows frequented by prosperous African- American women who lived there. Published by Picture Post, it brought her the invitation to join Magnum.

“I have been nervously waiting for the American elections which indicate a malaise that I dare not contemplate,” she wrote me from London in a letter of August 21, 1968. “This is the first time since 1952 that I shall not have attended American political conventions and so feel outside the American presidential scene.”

Had she been in America then, she would have voted for the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who lost to the Republican, Richard Nixon. Though she lived in Britain, she remained as interested in who occupied the Oval Office as in who resided at 10 Downing Street.

We both saw the 1960s as a watershed decade. But while I saw the change as almost all bad—an era of cults, drugs, sexually transmitted disease, moral hypocrisy, and, worst of all, 1968 as the birth year of international terrorism—she saw a bright side to the decade: hope in “egalitarianism advancing,” youthful joy in “swinging London,” sincerity in the slogan “make love not war.” She thought that the student uprisings in France, Japan, Mexico, and America would bring positive change. I investigated the student protest movement in Germany and found it to be evil. She heard the era’s good promises and regretted that they were not fulfilled. “It was good to see the ferment that was 1968,” she wrote. “It seemed a watershed year, though when I look back on it, it’s apparent that the water didn’t shed.” I heard the sounds of struggle and alarm, and hoped the water would not shed, the threats would not be carried out.

Marilyn Monroe on the set of "The Misfits," 1960 (© EVE ARNOLD/MAGNUM PHOTOS)

I thought that the 1980s were a silver age, thanks to Margaret Thatcher, whom I still hold to be one of Britain’s greatest leaders, ranking almost as high as Winston Churchill. Arnold—who had photographed Thatcher standing among huge statues of Churchill in 1977 when she was leader of the Conservative Party in opposition—thought that as prime minister, she was “leading Britain in the wrong direction” and that she cared too much for law and order.

But Eve Arnold was no revolutionary. Too maturely wise to be radical, she was not blind to leftism’s dangers. She witnessed the melancholy and fear of life under Communism when she went with a fellow journalist to Soviet Russia to photograph the reputedly “oldest men in the world” in the Republic of Georgia. She recalls: “What bothered us as we traveled around the country was the unhappiness on the faces of the people and the grey grim look of their surroundings.” A few Russians confided in her that “although things were easier since Stalin’s death, they still walked in fear of their lives.”

Her work was published by many of the big-circulation picture magazines, but most of her assignments in the last four decades of the twentieth century came from the Sunday Times Magazine. Its editors held her in high esteem, so when she asked them to commission me to write a story for them, they agreed. The subject, at my suggestion, was an 11-day festival of performance art in Vienna, which I anticipated (rightly) would be a celebration of terrorism. My hope and expectation were that Arnold and I would work on it together. But the editors sent her on a different assignment. So who, they wondered, should accompany me to take the photographs? One suggested Leni Riefenstahl, the brilliant but infamous photographer who filmed, all too superbly, Hitler’s Nuremberg congress and the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Nazi Germany. I declined, and another photographer came with me to Vienna. The story was spiked anyway, because the inevitable pictures of naked bodies covered in animal blood were reckoned to be “too bloody to put on Sunday morning breakfast tables.” What I regret is that no opportunity arose again for me to work with Arnold.

South Africa’s apartheid regime was another political issue on which we agreed. At Arnold’s request, I transported a pile of photographs out of South Africa for Magnum. They recorded the historic black schoolchildren’s protest, in Soweto Township near Johannesburg in 1976, against new oppressive laws by the apartheid government. Some 20,000 children marched along the dusty streets to demonstrate their opposition to being taught in Afrikaans. The police turned out in force to stop them, and the confrontation ended in a bloodbath. Hundreds of the young protesters were killed. The pictures brought to me were banned from publication within the country, and sending them abroad was forbidden. I packed them in the suitcase I consigned to the baggage-hold of the plane, unpacked them in London, and took them to Arnold. She took them on to New York. They were published, and their story told, including the information that “someone” had gotten them out of South Africa. I was disappointed that my name was not mentioned. I wanted it to be known that I had defied the South African censors, who had banned or embargoed every book of mine since the late 1960s. But I didn’t have the heart to say so to Arnold when she assured me that she had been careful to keep my involvement a secret so that I would “suffer no repercussions for my law-breaking” from the South African authorities.

An entire issue of the magazine Fair Lady was banned in South Africa because it contained her photo of a nude Vanessa Redgrave, from behind. The South African censors considered the picture obscene. From such sights, it was their duty to shield the population of their country. To a South African reporter who asked Arnold her reaction to the banning, she wrote: “My book, which contains the same picture, is on sale in South Africa—unbanned. But in that book, in the South African section, there are pictures of children dying of kwashiorkor [a condition resulting from severe undernourishment]. Now those pictures are really obscene.”

Inner Mongolia: horse training for the militia, 1979 (© EVE ARNOLD/MAGNUM PHOTOS)

She spoke with the most enthusiasm about her assignments in distant foreign lands: South Africa, Afghanistan, Russia, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Cuba, Tunisia, and, above all, China. Every year for ten years, she had applied to go there, and at last, in 1979, she was granted a visa.

It had been three years since Mao Zedong died. His “modernizing” successor, Deng Xiaoping, was keen on opening China to the West, and Arnold was a beneficiary of the policy. She did not have the freedom to go anywhere and photograph anything. She told her hosts what she wanted to do, and they made arrangements. She always had an interpreter-guide with her, of course—sometimes two.

“Very few pictures I took . . . were questioned,” she wrote. A shot of men moving a girder with great strain and difficulty was one of the few. In the West, the heavy lifting would have been done by a machine, and her hosts knew it. “Although I was allowed to take this picture, there was unease and worry about it afterward. I asked why a photograph was such a threat. Oh, because it is more effective than words and yet tells only a partial truth. The reader might not grasp its meaning fully or might completely misunderstand.” That particular picture did not, her hosts explained, make clear that the country had “come a long way since Liberation” and was still making progress. Besides, a picture would not explain that the men were “working for themselves”—meaning that they were proletarians and so, in theory, the rulers of their Communist country.

After three months traveling about China, Arnold brought back photos she was proud of. Their content was technically innovative in the shades and hues of their color and the focus and gradations of the light. But she wasn’t satisfied that she’d learned enough. She wanted to go back, knowing better now what to look for—or to ask to see.

Which reminded her, she told me, of something that her father used to tell her mother: “If only I knew today what you will tell me tomorrow that you could have told me yesterday!”

She did return to China for another two months later that same year. She knew that there were things she was not allowed to see, events she was not allowed to witness, testimony she was not allowed to hear, facts she was not allowed to know. But what she saw and learned and recorded was important and interesting enough. She took an enormous number of photographs. A selection appeared, with her written account of the adventure, in an album titled simply In China.

The book contributed to China’s effort to open itself to the West—or at least to Western eyes. And it informed the West that the Chinese expected to catch up with it, warning that they were “determined to become a global power” and “restore to China its former significance for the world.”

It does not tell us much that we need to know, in 2021, about China’s increasingly ominous significance for our economy and security. Absent her mother, Eve Arnold could not tell us yesterday what we need to know today. But her art remains, and it is beautiful.

Top Photo: Photographer Eve Arnold (© FERDINANDO SCIANNA/MAGNUM PHOTOS)

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