HOW WE MET; EVE ARNOLD AND BEEBAN KIDRON
Sunday 12 May 1996
Director Beeban Kidron, 34, was born in London. Her films include Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Used People, and Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns. Her recent documentary, Eve Arnold: In Retrospect, is broadcast tomorrow on BBC1
EVE ARNOLD: About 18 years ago, I told Sue Davies, who was running the Photographers Gallery, that I was looking for an assistant. She told me that there was a young woman working there on Saturdays and Sundays, in the prints department. I went along to the Gallery to see her and I was impressed by this wonderfully funny, witty young lady.
As I walked out of the door, I asked, "Well, when can you start?". When she said, "In two years' time", I shouted, "What?". She explained that she was going to be 14 on Monday. Two years later, she came to work for me. During that time, I was away a great deal, so I just employed a number of temporary assistants when I needed them. Looking through her portfolio, I had been tremendously impressed with her quirky documentary style. Beeban was a real original, so I consciously waited for her.
It was a very busy time for me and my new assistant helped me edit entire stories, while she learnt how a book evolves from the first thoughts to finished pages. The little I taught her she mastered in the first two weeks she was with me. I've never known anyone like her - someone so young who knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. Beeban was so quick to take things in, entirely focused. Until I was about 19 I had wanted to be a doctor. Photography came later on.
At the end of two years, I felt it was time for her to leave the nest. I think she was a little offended, but it was too comfortable for her to stay. She needed something more challenging. I encouraged her to see the world so that she might comment on it in her own way. We kept in touch and then she enrolled at the National Film School, where she started to impress others and win prizes.
To me, Beeban is a wonderful, good friend and when she's in London, our rare Sunday breakfasts are meetings I always look forward to. She has a special gift with people. Making films, she's one of those directors who manages to get people to do things for her because they trust her. She has such a fresh way of looking at things and handles the camera well. Those things matter, so people working with Beeban respect the way she thinks and are always willing to try new things.
In the heyday of photojournalism, there were very few of us doing it, and for me, being a woman was a great plus, although some of my more militant feminist friends don't agree with me. Believe me. I was there. I think it's much more difficult now for women like Beeban because there are so few avenues for their work. There were many magazines in my time, and it really was like working in an adventure playground. We could do just about anything we wanted and go anywhere.
In my job, you need enormous stamina as well as vision. Beeban has always had both, plus a wry sense of humour, which helps. She takes the work seriously but not always herself, and that is a huge advantage. Beeban was always very sure of herself. It's an extraordinary thing, the way she sees things so clearly. She's had a child and goes back and forth to Hollywood with him. Some of her films are better than others, but what they have in common is that all of them are individual, fresh, and humane. People trust her. She's not manipulative, although I can't say that it was easy being the subject of one of her documentaries. We were working in my flat on the Omnibus film, when I'd just had enough. I turned round and said to her, "That's enough. Cut." I only did it once.
If she's learnt anything from me, it's to let the personality of the subject come through, but even as a 14-year-old I guess that was something she'd already picked up elsewhere. Working for me all those years ago wasn't always easy. If I had a deadline to meet, that was what mattered, so the story had to be edited and finished, however late it was. When I was up against it, I used to make up a bed for Beeban. I knew it was an imposition of me to ask her to stay and there were many nights that she resented my asking. She had a right to do so, but, if nothing else, it taught her discipline. That's something Beeban has never been short of.
BEEBAN KIDRON: When I was 13, I had a weekend job at the Photographers Gallery Bookshop, in London. Eve came to the Gallery and started talking to me. She asked me to come and see her so she could see some of my work. How she knew me I don't know - I think her son had pointed out one of my pictures which had been published in a magazine. I had no idea who she was, but I got together a big pile of prints. At home, as I was ready to leave, someone accidentally spilled a jar of beetroot on the kitchen table, so there were purple blobs on all my photographs.
I arrived at her block of flats and rang the bell. She lives on the fifth floor and shouted "Hello'' down the stairwell. I was a fat child and arrived puffing at her door. In her deeply resonant American voice she said, "If you want to be a photographer, you'd better lose some weight.''
Eve was very charming and hospitable. Everything was done with great style - a silver tray and real linen napkins, but what made a lasting impression on me was the way she really looked at my pictures. When Eve said, "Will you be my assistant?" I had to tell her that I was going to be 14 the next day. She laughed like a drain. Eve has a fabulous sense of humour - one of the funniest in the world. Two years and one day later, she called, and that's when I went to work for her.
Although I now occasionally hanker after an "education", I've never regretted working for Eve. Not many young women of my age have been lucky enough to have had a wonderful mentor in their life. Ours is a relationship which is based on much more than just work. We go to movies, theatre and exhibitions together, and now have a circle of friends in common, even though we are at least a generation apart. She is one of the very few people in London I keep in contact with by phone from New York. If I'm in England, my greatest treat is to meet Eve for Sunday breakfast.
She taught me that there was a cost in having an entirely professional life. I've lost count of the plane tickets I've had in my pocket for people's weddings and other celebrations, which I've had to tear up because I was making a film. How many things like that can you miss and still be in people's lives? Eve is a woman of steel and was relentless about me pursuing that goal of having it all. When I told her I was pregnant and had just started on a movie, she told me, "There's no choice if you want a job and a family, you just have to get on with it.'' Noah was born on the last day of filming.
I look at Eve's marvellous photographs of her son playing with Marilyn Monroe and I know the real struggle for her behind them. It was much harder for Eve than it is for me and my contemporaries. Now, we can all go to any corner of the earth at the drop of a hat. Thirty years ago, when Eve was travelling, it was a different thing entirely. It wasn't as easy, but there was a lot of glamour attached to people like Eve who went all over the world. People chose to see the glamour, not the human cost involved.
When I first worked with Eve, she was travelling a great deal in China and India. I didn't go with her, but when she was putting the photographs together for her books, I'd lay them all out with her and work on the editing. When Eve's working, everything moves so fast, it's as though she creates a weather situation around her. Apart from the exciting, creative jobs, there were also the boring things which had to be done. I bought Eve's food from Selfridges, picked up her dry cleaning and typed letters for her. She used to say it was a pity I couldn't spell.
Eve was a pioneer for all of us - an incredibly strong woman who had to stand up for a great deal of both verbal and unsaid opposition in her profession. The fact that there are any women working in Hollywood at all is, I believe, in a great part due to the the handful of women like Eve who stood firm in that male environment, particularly in Fifties America, which was so very conservative.
I have a very good mother, but in some ways, Eve has become like a second mother. When Noah was six months old, she said to me, "I don't do baby photos, I don't photograph friends and I don't do anything when I'm in the middle of writing a book.'' She broke her rule. At home, I have ten photographs of Noah, taken by Eve, hanging on my wall. They remind me that one of the greatest privileges of my life was that people, much older than me, who knew what they were doing, gave me a shot at doing things for myself. Central to all those people was Eve Arnold. She's the one who taught me that you don't go to bed until the job's done.
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