American photographer Eve Arnold, who died in January aged 99, was good with celebrities. Only, she called them ‘personalities’ – apt, given that’s exactly what she caught in her portraits.
Arnold didn’t just snap star-quality; she framed a different side of a well-known face, or a moment of fleeting intimacy. Plenty of preparation actually went into these, naturally; Arnold recognised that spending weeks on film sets with her subjects allowed intimacy to flourish, which in turn allowed “the person being photographed to be uninhibited” (the best of these unsurprisingly pre-date the tight schedules and PR control of today).
This intimacy is certainly in evidence in her most famous images, of Marilyn Monroe. While in some Monroe is a full-on glamourpuss, even when supposedly ‘resting’, others reveal the prosaic side of being a screen goddess: doing her hair quite casually on set. Elsewhere, there’s a flicker of vulnerability, hands held up to her face as if puzzling out a problem, an expression that seems far away, almost bewildered.
While Arnold was a trailblazer for female photographers – she was the first to join the Magnum photo agency – she was understandably disgruntled about being tagged a ‘woman photographer’. But, at the risk of overstating the importance of gender, these ‘personality’ prints do reveal a particularly sensitive approach to shooting celebrated women: she captures a radiant stillness in Isabella Rossellini, a pensive Angelica Huston, an amusingly off-guard Marlene Dietrich.
Of course, it wasn’t just the beautiful she shot – it was also the damned, the damaged and the dispossessed. This exhibition brilliantly showcases the huge range of her photojournalism, from migrant potato pickers and Harlem fashion shows in the Fifties, to British Royalty and Malcolm X in the Sixties, to being one of the first Western photographers allowed into China in the Seventies. Even Margaret Thatcher couldn’t avoid capture: there’s a strained 1977 portrait of her standing next to an enormous, bulbous statue of Churchill’s head. It's a witty juxtaposition – though impossible to say whether it's that imposing sculpture or being held in Arnold’s beady sights that makes even Thatcher look so... diminished.
At their best, her images tell a story through a single emotional moment, as in the devastating black and white shot, ‘Divorce in Moscow’ (1966). A couple are sat on a bench, turned away from each other. It’s a simple composition, hardly that dramatic, yet pain and resignation reek off it. The longer you look, the more you seem to see. Which goes for much of the output of this prolific and ever-curious photographer.
Art Sensus, London SW1 (020 7630 9585) to 27 April
- More about:
- Actors And Actresses
- Margaret Thatcher