The legend of Eve Arnold
15 March 2023
by Jasmina Trifoni
“And what would be so special that we would be so proud of it?” was Mrs. Bessie Cohen’s cutting comment to her daughter Eve’s report “A Baby’s First Five Minutes” for Life magazine. Yet those images, which – taken in the maternity ward of a Long Island hospital – tell the story of the first five minutes of a newborn, are perhaps the most intense, moving and poetic of the entire long career of Eve Arnold, who died in 2012 when there were only a few months left before the 100-year mark.
Born in 1912 in Philadephia, the fifth of a rabbi’s nine children, Eve Cohen (who would take her husband’s more neutral surname, Arnold Arnold, keeping it even after the divorce) was the first woman, together with the Austrian Inge Morath, to enter, in 1951, the prestigious Magnum agency. In an annoyingly not too distant time in which the status of female photojournalist – as well as that of women tout court – was marginalized and, too often, looked upon with condescension and suspicion, even within the family, Eve Arnold had been a pioneer and a revolutionary. And her adventurous life and her extraordinary and extraordinarily eclectic work are today a hymn to female emancipation.
To celebrate it in an unmissable exhibition is CAMERA – Centro per la Fotografia di Torino (until 4 June) which, with the curatorship of Monica Poggi and the collaboration of Magnum Photos, exhibits 170 images, taken over the course of over thirty years and all of a power capable of striking the observer in the heart and stomach.
If Arnold’s iconic shots of celebrities of her time, her research had increasingly moved towards social photography and her expressed intent was to “portray the banal trying to show how special it is”. In fact, he captured the banal moments of the lives of the stars with magnificent and imaginative perfection, showing them in non-star attitudes, refusing the use of flash and studio lights and spending hours in the dark room to soften the compositions and enhance an emotional closeness with subjects. And, at the same time, in his reportages, from Afghanistan to apartheid South Africa, he was able to show that seemingly ordinary lives are never banal. Of Eve Arnold, the co-founder of Magnum Robert Capa had said: «Metaphorically speaking, her work falls somewhere between the legs of Marlene Dietrich and the bitter life of migrant workers in the potato fields”.
They had been precisely the shots of Marlene Dietrich, taken by Arnold for an unexpected stroke of luck (the colleague in charge had canceled at the last moment) in the Columbia records studios in New York, while the divine – from midnight to dawn, according to the strict prescriptions of the astrologer always in his wake – he recorded some passages dear to the allied troops, to give recognition to his original photographic approach.
After this success, Arnold was called by Marilyn Monroe, who photographed regularly from 1955, with expressive shots on the beach of Long Island, until 1960, shortly before the actress’s death, when she was sent to the Nevada desert on the set of John Huston’s Misfits. Here he portrayed the most desired woman in Hollywood in moments that show her torments and fragility which, in hindsight, heralded her tragic end.
With an entirely feminine attitude, Arnold managed to establish relationships of complicity and empathy with her subjects.
It happened with stars like the temperamental Joan Crawford, whom she portrayed (also) in her grueling make-up sections before going to set, as well as in environments seemingly even less congenial to her being a photographer and a white-skinned woman.
His professional life – which began when he was 37 years old, and thanks to the providential and unexpected gift of a friend, a Rolleicord camera – began with his move from Philadelphia to Long Island to follow a photography course in New York at the New School for Social Research led by Alexey Brodovitch, legendary art director of Harper’s Bazaar. For what we would call her student paper, Arnold chose to document a fashion show of African American designers in a converted church in Harlem, choosing to overturn the glossy aesthetics of the fashion magazines of that period by portraying the spontaneity of the models behind the scenes, the trepidation of the audience and the gloomy, smoke-filled environment in what was, then, a ghetto. Although those images were even considered scandalous by American newspapers, Arnold managed to publish her interpretation of black fashion in 1951, in the British magazine Picture Post, and then in other European magazines. And it was thanks to these that she got noticed by Henri Cartier-Bresson who invited her to follow that path outside the box and invited her to Magnum. In fact, Arnold would gradually address with increasing frequency hot topics, and still hot today, such as racism and the struggle for the emancipation of minorities. It was chosen by Malcolm X (of whom he took what is undoubtedly his portrait that went down in history) to document the Black Muslim rallies.
Then, the whole world unfolded in front of her, with reports like the one she made together with Bruce Chatwin in India, culminating in her meeting with Indira Gandhi. Or the one, equally strong and still of pressing relevance that took her to the Middle East and Afghanistan following the inspiration given to her in Tunisia by the historic speech of President Habib Bourghiba who urged women to remove the veil and embrace modernity. Or, finally, the one that had made her enter the Olympus of Vietnam war photographers, even though she had never set foot in that Southeast Asian country. His images of soldiers training in a mock Viet Cong village in Maryland are perhaps the most poignant about the absurdity of that war. And of all wars.