All about Eve

24Seven; Beeban Kidron's Omnibus on celebrated photographer Eve Arnold succeeds in the task of bringing static images to life on screen.
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The Independent Culture
Stills. The very word creates problems for a director of moving pictures. How do you make a fluent film about static photographs? This was the challenge faced by Beeban Kidron, the Bafta-winning director of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, as she approached her Omnibus on the celebrated American photographer Eve Arnold. "There's only one thing worse than a film about photography," laughs Arnold, talking during a break in preparations for her exhibition at the Barbican, "and that's to talk about it on radio. That's a nightmare. I always feel hard done by on film. You move in and out of the image, but you never quite see it whole. Photography's value is that it is still and that you can hold it in your hand. Film keeps moving, so you can only give a sense of the person taking the photographs."

Given all those drawbacks, Kidron has made a commendable job of bringing Arnold's stills to life, of animating the inanimate. "In the set-piece interviews with Eve," the director recalls, "I got her to walk me through a lot of the pictures. So a lot of them were not photographed with a rostrum camera but in situ. They are held up like her friends."

In one moving sequence, Arnold discusses how she came to terms with losing a baby by spending four months in a maternity unit only photographing infants in their first five minutes of life. As she fills in the sad background, Kidron's camera focuses on a succession of Arnold's images: a mother's face in the rictus of agony/ecstasy that is the final stages of labour, or a tiny hand with a hospital tag on the wrist clutching the tip of its mother's finger. The stories behind the snaps vivify them.

Kidron also uses slo-mo scenes from the hang of Arnold's show in New York to infuse the film with a sense of action. "I used the exhibition as a living thing," she remembers. "The sense of things being chosen and put up gives the film more motion. The other thing I did was use interviews with people I stopped on the street in New York and asked about Eve's pictures. I decided against either experts or critics. They are already available to interested people in their columns and radio shows. I wanted to show how Eve affects people and felt it was a very live way of looking at some of the pictures."

There are certainly some vivacious vox pop reactions to Arnold's photograph of Vanessa Redgrave's bare bottom, but the person on the Manhattan omnibus also comes up with some astute analysis. Admiring one portrait, a man marvels: "it's not like a pose... it's like she just happened upon it."

Kidron resisted the urge to crop the pictures judgementally. "I didn't do that dreadful arts programme thing and show people where to look. I showed pictures full frame, in their entirety. That way, you get a sense of immediacy and movement, but at the same time you see a lot of the work. In fact, there are more pictures in the film than there are in the exhibition."

Having worked as Arnold's assistant for two years after leaving school, Kidron is obviously parti pris, but she provides a canny assessment of what distinguishes her photography. "It's the intimacy of her pictures. It's as if she's the only person in a room with someone. She captures images of famous people extraordinarily off-guard, and her pictures of ordinary people are so revealing." Think of Marilyn Monroe looking pensive in the Nevada desert on the set of the Misfits, or Malcolm X caught in profile with his trademark hat rakishly tilted forward.

"A close cousin to that is her humanity," Kidron continues. "She's not looking to expose, nor even to explain, but to reveal. It's a softer view of the world - and I don't mean that in a bad sense. In such a harsh world, it's a very refreshing thing to see the revealing of someone. She's not in the business of stitching people up. Now photography is more often an opportunity to make your mark on someone's face rather than reveal their inner soul."

The film goes into meticulous detail about the bonds Arnold forms with her subjects: Malcolm X, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and most notably, Marilyn Monroe. She builds a relationship with them, and they build a relationship with the camera. "I thought the section on Marilyn might skew the whole thing," Kidron reflects, "but it is the point where Eve reveals herself best. Watching that bit where she says that Marilyn was the little girl lost and she was the mommy and that she found that irritating, it suddenly occurred to me that that is why Eve took such bloody marvellous pictures of her. She is the tough-love mother. She loves the subjects to death, but doesn't want them to run amok. That's why Dietrich and Crawford and all those incredibly powerful, high-achieving women responded to her. She's just a tough little bundle. You do what she says - I know I do."

Omnibus also homes in on Arnold's highly committed approach to her work. Highlighting her trips to Harlem, China, Russia and South Africa, it paints a portrait of a passionate artist. Her photographs are not dusty documents vaguely remembering things past, but vivid testaments to universal human suffering.

After a two-month stint recording the malnutrition of children in South African townships, Arnold "wound up quite ill. The doctors couldn't diagnose the problem. Finally one said to me, 'it's not scientific, but I think you're suffering from heartbreak from what you've seen.' You can't stand back and pretend you don't know what is going on. You have to have a point of view. You're a human being first, and a photographer second."

The Eve Arnold exhibition is at the Barbican, London, EC2 (0171-638 4141)

Omnibus: 'Eve Arnold in Retrospect' is on BBC1 at 10.40pm on Monday