What Eve Arnold saw

When Eve Arnold died in the first week of January this year she was just three months short of her 100th birthday. She had been very much looking forward to it, according to friends who visited in her last weeks, despite being very frail by then. Not frail enough, however, to be excluded from the planning stages of her next book, which was to be a celebration of her 100th year, and which came off the presses the week she died. “Is he good with his letters?” she had asked, fixing a beady eye on the book’s designer, Stuart Smith, when he went for their first meeting. She wanted, she told him, a book that she could hold in her hands, look at in her lap. Asked if she had any colours for the binding in mind, she said “rose” was a favourite. So the end-papers are a deep pink. Arnold often wore a perfume that smelled of roses.

There had been many other books, of course. Her first, The Unretouched Woman, was published in 1976, and in 2009, Eve Arnold’s People was her 13th. But this one was to include many from her personal collection of pictures, which she had kept in her flat in Mayfair. Among them were the original prints of the story on migrant workers on Long Island, with which she had applied to join the Magnum Agency in New York in 1952 (their first woman member). And there were some of the street pictures she had made in New York, even earlier, when she had been trying her hand at cityscapes and night pictures and pictures with fortuitous juxtapositions in the style of Cartier-Bresson, such as her 1950 image of Times Square, with a tiny man on a ladder cleaning the giant letter “N” on one side and a huge, scantily dressed female figure, her toga trimmed with neon, looking down from the façade of a women’s clothing store on the other – a game of scale and gender played out across the frame. For these pictures Eve was walking a beat familiar to street photographers before her – the Lower East Side, Atlantic City, Hubert’s Museum at 42nd Street and Broadway, where acts such as “Albert/Alberta, The Sex Mystery” had provided the Austrian émigré photographer Lisette Model with her subject matter in the mid-1940s, and would later do the same for Diane Arbus. Model taught at The New School for Social Research in New York, which was where, in 1952, Arnold received her only professional tuition – a six-week course taught by Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar.

1950: Times Square, New York City

In Arnold’s 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, she describes the ordeal of these first few lessons, when students were invited to crit each other and did so with a vengeance. But out of it came a style of working that – unlike the random pictures from wandering New York – would set her on the course she followed for the rest of her working life.

She was born in Philadelphia in 1912, into a poor Russian-Jewish family of nine children. On arrival in America, her parents had changed their names, from Velvel Sklarski and Boysa Laschiner to William and Bessie Cohen. Their ambition for their three daughters was to marry well, but Eve wanted to be independent. She worked in a real estate office during the day and studied at evening classes. She hoped to become a doctor. But in 1943, when friends were urging her to come to New York, she answered an ad in The New York Times for an “amateur photographer”. She had been given a camera by a boyfriend, and was a proficient amateur, but it turned out to be a production job at Stanbi Photos in Hoboken, New Jersey, which was staffing a new plant to deal with automated film processing. She stayed for five years and became plant manager.

By the time she went to the New School in 1952 she was married to Arnold Arnold, a toy manufacturer, and had a young son, Francis. It was his nanny, Dora, who gave Eve the idea for her first class assignment. Dora told her that in Harlem there were more than 300 fashion shows a year and they were supplied with models from the agencies Sepia and Black & Tan, both run by Edward Brandford. He invited Eve to meet their star model, Charlotte Stribling, known as “Fabulous”. From backstage, Eve photographed Fabulous in action. To her surprise, the results found favour with the maestro. “You do not do class assignments,” Brodovitch ordered. “Go back to Harlem and do a comprehensive study.”

1950: Self-portrait in a distorting mirror, Broadway, New York City

Over the next decade, the comprehensive study developed into what she later described as a “three-tiered” working routine: “1. Writing and editing the current story. 2. Preparing the next assigned story. 3. Reading for and researching a third story. Meanwhile there would be film to buy, cameras to clean, money in foreign currencies to secure, injections against various diseases to have … Friends would drop in for last-minute hugs ... as I raced for the plane, the cameras strapped to my back, already homesick, the depression would hit. To allay it would come ironic memories of my friends telling me what a glamorous life I lived!”

The most gruelling stories were often those she proposed herself: in 1954, she followed Senator Joe McCarthy at the height of the anti-communist witch-hunts; in 1960-61 she spent a year with the black Muslim leader Malcolm X, as he whipped up support in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York, backed by a now barely credible alliance with the American Nazi Party. It was after one of these rallies that Eve discovered the back of her sweater was pitted with holes where members of the Nazi party had stubbed out their cigarettes in hate at the sight of this small woman photographer who was obviously Jewish.

1951: A picture from 'Migrant Labour', one of Eve Arnold’s earliest stories, documented the life of migrant potato pickers in Montauk, Long Island, New York

In the early 1960s, with her son in an English boarding school and separated from her husband, she began to work for the recently launched Sunday Times Colour Magazine, which over the next two decades took her to many countries: to the Caucasus in 1965, in search of the oldest man in the world; on a month’s trip across the Soviet Union a year later. In 1969-70 she went to Afghanistan, Egypt and the Emirates, where she gained permission to photograph inside the harem of Sheikha Sana, the niece of the ruler of Dubai. The film she made subsequently, Behind the Veil, forced her to consider what she most valued about still photography. “I love the idea I can go off with a single camera and a few rolls of film unencumbered … I was not interested in the illusion of reality, I wanted to get close to what was happening.”

One of her toughest assignments was in South Africa, in 1973, where she saw apartheid at its worst. She sneaked inside hospitals where black children were dying from malnutrition and disease; she witnessed the separation of black families, the men forced to work in mines or in cities living in compounds hundreds of miles away. When she got back to London she was ill for months: her doctor said it was not a medical ailment, it was caused by what she had seen; he diagnosed it as heartbreak.

She had been trying for more than a decade to get a visa to visit China when, in 1979, the Americans established diplomatic relations and she was allowed in to take two three-month trips to cover a story, loosely described as “daily life” in China. Her ideal of direct contact was inhibited not only by the strict control of government officials, but by crowds of Chinese, including amateur photographers who wanted to question her about her technique, and hordes of children who gathered round her. She had decided to work in colour, and brought back some of what are now her best-loved pictures – the young girl lying in the Inner Mongolian steppe with her white horse, in training for the militia; the portrait of the beautiful and very old Chinese woman who stepped suddenly out of a doorway into the light before retreating into the darkness. Over the years it has often been read as a surrogate self-portrait. When her grandchildren were little, they were sure it was a picture of Eve herself.

Between these long and difficult trips she carried out her more “glamorous” assignments. As a single parent she needed to earn more money and film location work gave her the opportunity. When she started out, access to the stars was far less rigorously policed than today. Her first job was an all-night recording session with Marlene Dietrich at a New York studio in 1952. Dietrich liked the pictures, and approved of Eve, who she took to calling her “white-haired girl” (Eve went prematurely grey). These were the pictures that Marilyn Monroe saw, and which brought forth that inimitable remark: “If you could do that well with Marlene, can you imagine what you can do with me?”

1960: Marilyn Monroe laughing with Clark Gable’s stand-in during the filming of 'The Misfits' in Nevada

Over almost a decade Monroe gave Arnold the kind of access she could only have dreamed of, and – if the story about Marilyn brushing her pubic hair in front of Arnold and a magazine reporter is to be believed – even more. The most telling pictures were those taken on the set of The Misfits, directed by John Huston in 1961. “I’m exhausted,” Monroe confided, helplessly, when Eve arrived. “Where do I go from here?” It would be her last film, as it was Clark Gable’s (he died within two weeks of the end of shooting). Her marriage to Arthur Miller was on the rocks. Gable, Huston and Monroe were all drinking heavily and she had to be hospitalised in the middle of the shoot. Some of this is in the pictures: Monroe is by turns strained, confused, voluptuous, touching; in some pictures she is giggling like a schoolgirl; in others she is visibly falling apart.

1951: Another picture from the 'Migrant Labour' stories

In 1987 Arnold published her account of that time, Marilyn Monroe: An Appreciation. Since then, as the market in photographic prints has boomed, vintage prints of Marilyn can sell for between $5,000 and $25,000. But though Marilyn appears in the latest book, she is not its dominant force. Even before Arnold joined Magnum she had begun to take pictures of the black migrant families who became agricultural labourers in Montauk, Long Island, near to where the Arnolds spent their summers. She described the terrible conditions of their camps on the back of one of her prints: “I have never been as shocked as when I entered the one-room shacks with the old iron bedsteads and thin pads, with one shaded bulb, in which as many as eight to ten people sleep … no toilet facilities, no water … it’s below the lowest possible standard of 30 or 40 years ago, let alone today’s standards.”

In 1960 she went to Petersburg, Virginia to cover the non-violent protest movement in the south. The Petersburg Improvement Association (PIA) had been set up in the 1950s as part of the US civil rights movement. Arnold listened to PIA members giving talks on passive resistance and in a series of photographs shows them instructing young black students how not to react to harassment by white people, who might goad and abuse them during sit-ins and demonstrations. In another picture from the same series, what looks like a lyrical picture of a young black woman and her brother walking along a beach in a summer breeze turns out to be a protest walk across a segregated Virginia lakefront.

1979: A young girl being given a permanent wave, China

Seeing the backs of her photographs is a reminder not only of how often and where they were published, but of how thorough Arnold was. Like her colleagues at Magnum from the early years, she prided herself on writing the captions and often wrote longer texts to support her pictures. She had learnt early on, when her captions had been altered by editors, that it was not only the rights to her photographs that she had to protect, but her words. And she was not the sort of photographer who believed pictures could tell the whole story.

In the final decades of her life, when books were her primary concern, she spent her days in London going over her negatives, writing the accompanying texts, receiving friends from all over the world who had to clamber (as she herself was forced to do) up the seven flights to her Mayfair flat. Last year, her old friend and neighbour, the Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh, wrote a poem in preparation for her 100th birthday. “Get up Eve and braid your long silver hair/Let’s go down to Mount Street/And eat smoked salmon/On buttered brown bread/With slices of cucumber/Fragile as rose petals…” It recalls how, in exchange for an emergency jug of milk, Eve might ask, “…and by the way, could I borrow the skirt you are wearing/And maybe the matching scarf?”

She was a stylish woman right into old age, with her diminutive figure, her long white hair wound neatly into a bun, her plain suits – usually a trouser suit – offset by a splash of colour from an Indian silk scarf or a Chinese shirt. And most memorable of all: her voice, that deep mannish growl that never lost its American drawl, often filled with warmth and humour but able to deliver a curse more readily than a compliment.

“I realise that I had the best of serious picture journalism,” she wrote in 1994. “There was an innocence in our approach, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when we naively believed that by holding a mirror up to the world we could help – no matter how little – to make people aware of the human condition. Now I question whether we were a combination of voyeur and exhibitionist as well as witness and crusader.” It was curiosity, first and foremost, she said, that had driven her on.

Between 2003 and 2006, her negatives and all her papers were sold to the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where they will provide students with a guide to how the world looked in the second part of the 20th century. It was not just her gender that marked Arnold out from her colleagues, but the range of her subjects and the absolute clarity of her pictures. She will continue to be represented by Magnum Photos, as she has been for the past 60 years.

‘All About Eve: The Photography of Eve Arnold’, is published by teNeues, £45. An exhibition, ‘All About Eve’, is at Art Sensus, London SW1, until April 27

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