Eve Arnold is known for her celebrity photographs, and perhaps most known for her photos of Marilyn Monroe. This is how I, as a woman with an obsession with Monroe, discovered Arnold. After reading my last book on Monroe, I had decided to swear-off my obsession and stop buying more Monroe stuff — at least books. But then I discovered Eve Arnold’s book of Monroe photographs…
Full of photos — nearly 100, including 48 previously unseen — yes; but it’s the quality, not the quantity.
Arnold’s photographs of Marilyn are unique. Unusually benevolent, these intimate photos of Marilyn Monroe expose the icon’s personality rather than her flesh. In these photos we see a person, not a sex object; a human, not any kind of object at all. And while I could go on and on about them, the important thing to know here is that these photos are different for several key reasons.
One is the all important matter of timing — and developing. The two met at a party and forged a wonderful friendship that would last a decade. As Arnold says, “We were both at the beginning of our careers, and I believe that neither of us knew precisely what we were doing.”
At the risk of more bad-pun-making, I’ll say what allowed the friendship to develop was the chemistry between the two. While many dismiss Marilyn’s intelligence, Eve didn’t. Both women knew what effect being a woman had on the world around her, and as Eve says, “We could make use of it, or we could let it be.”
Arnold would later say, “I didn’t want to be a ‘woman photographer’. That would limit me. I wanted to be a photographer who was a woman, with all the world open to my camera.” (And more recently confirms this belief, saying in a BBC interview, “No, I am a photographer. And you don’t say, a man photographer. So it seems likely that I am a photographer.”) This certainly puts the the two women on decidedly different paths, at least in appearance; yet it would stop neither’s success.
Arnold was the first woman to be nominated for membership in Magnum in 1951, and became a full member in 1957. In 1995 she was made fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and elected Master Photographer, the world’s most prestigious photographic honor, by New York’s International Center of Photography; and in 2003, she was awarded an honorary O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) by the British Government.
Looking at her photographs, you can see why.
Through her photos of celebrities, we see more than famous people, more than a time capsule of “us” or “society”. Even with such famous and familiar faces, we see something — someone — new.
If the mark of a really good novel is that you think of the characters long after the book ends, then photographs of people ought to do the same. Eve Arnold’s photos do that. Even if you think you know the people in the portraits.
And when you don’t know the people in the photographs? You long to…
In fact, if I have one complaint about Arnold’s works, it’s that I can’t find out enough. I know that photographers believe that a photo is worth a thousand words, but often they do not seem to document the details which I long to know… A perpetual problem for me, I know; but still, why can’t I find out more about Charlotte Stribling aka ‘Fabulous’? Or Girl Holding Head, Insane Asylum, Haiti 1954?
The titles are stark, in such contrast to such compassionate, deep, rich images. Perhaps this is by design, so that I, we, move past words and labels into what seeing and feeling. But I still want to know more about Charlotte and Girl Holding Head. For now, all I can do is stare at the photos and wonder.
Along with her famous celebrity protraits, there are a few others we can learn more about. Such as the Veiled woman, Muscat, Oman 1969. She, and others, can (presumably) be seen in Arnold’s 1969 film about Dubai, Behind the Veil. This film is said, not only to capture “a traditional Muslim society just as it begins to become modernized, but also the antagonism between Islamic and Western societies that has been the stuff of news stories throughout the first years of the 21st century.”
I bet it’s amazing.
If there’s one thing I’ve read which seems to sum up the brilliance of Arnold’s photos, it’s this quote from the artist herself: “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 is the gift of this talented photographer. A gift no doubt noticed & appreciated by Monroe, allowing such a friendship, but by all who were before Arnold’s camera. Indeed a gift she shares with all who see her photographs.
So now I’ll collect Eve Arnold works — likely in books, due to my modest means. Not because she knew Marilyn; but because she knew how to take pictures of her. And of everyone she photographed.
PS Through June 14, the David Gallery exhibits All About Eve, the single largest collection of vintage and period Eve Arnold prints available for acquisition. I wish I were close enough to see it. If you go, I’m accepting souveniers.