Eve Arnold: Photojournalist famed for her intimate portraits of Monroe and Malcolm X

 

My photographs," wrote Eve Arnold in 1978, "are, of necessity, subjective – filtered through my background and education, my prejudices, and the limitations imposed by chance and the time in which I lived."

Arnold's career as a photojournalist spanned over 40 years and was characterised by irony, inquisitiveness and a fascination with everyday eccentricities. She became one of modern photography's most tenacious characters – first American woman member of the influential photo agency Magnum, prodigious traveller, a documentarist with a sharp eye for the comic and the unexpected.

Like so many of her generation, Eve Arnold became a photographer almost by accident. The daughter of émigré Russian-Jewish parents, as a young woman growing up in Philadelphia she had planned to study medicine and considered a career as a dancer. But the gift of a Rolleiflex camera during the Second World War marked the beginning of a fascination for documentary photography which endured for the rest of her life.

With the Rolleiflex, she took to the streets of New York and became enthralled by the tempo of city life. Years later, she remembered vividly "the people who roamed the streets, the all-night honky-tonk joints, the flea circus, the dance halls and the peek-a-boo vending machines". Photographing New York was "a total education – I saw a lot and I learned a lot... how to move quickly, to react instantly or to wait for the right moment."

In 1947, Arnold joined Alexey Brodovitch's influential photography class at the New School for Social Research (where the future fashion photographer Richard Avedon was a fellow student), and began to make photo-essays which examined the everyday life of New York. Before long, she had sold her first photo story – a documentation of a black fashion show in Harlem – to the English magazine Picture Post.

During the Fifties, a boom time for photojournalists, her photographs were in great demand – "I seemed to be dashing around the country from story to story" – and commissions ranged from an essay on the black Muslim leader Malcolm X for Life magazine to a lengthy assignment photographing the film star Joan Crawford on the set of The Best of Everything (1959).

She covered the 1952 Republican Presidential Convention for Picture Post and photographed the Miss America contest for Esquire magazine, observed "the rich at play" at museum private views and movie premieres, and remained a sardonic if affectionate observer of the foibles and fantasies of Fifties' America. She became celebrated for her portraits of Marilyn Monroe, seeing, as few others did at the time, the vulnerable woman behind the celebrity façade. In graphic black and white she made a study of what she saw as "a corseted society", producing an archive of photographs which have become an important document of post-war life in the United States.

By the early Sixties, Arnold had become increasingly perturbed by life in the United States, with its increasing social dissent and racial and social inequity. In 1961, she travelled with her young son to London, and found a city which she loved with all the fervour of the willing expatriate.

"It was balm, professionally and personally," she said. "It seemed so quiet, so civilised after the travail of the Fifties and Sixties in the United States. I walked the streets of London remembering the years of reading about the city; literary allusions, phrases, images, all flooded in."

She soon made valuable contacts in the small, lively London magazine world. She worked for Queen, the stylish and progressive journal of fashion and the arts and editors gave her freedom to initiate and research her own stories.

As one of the few women photojournalists working in Britain, she had rarity value too. But rarity brought a sense of isolation, which she later wryly acknowledged:

"From the beginning, I was looked on as someone apart – 'a career lady', 'a woman photographer'. I was not happy about it, but realised, as have women before me, that it was a fundamental part of female survival to play the assigned role. I could not fight against these attitudes. I needed to know more about other women to try and understand what made me acquiesce in this situation."

When Arnold began to work for the new and vastly innovative Sunday Times Magazine in the mid Sixties, her scope as a photographer increased. Looking back through the stories she made in the Sixties and early Seventies, one is struck by the close and concentrated focus of her work, the flow from picture to picture, the boldness of the layouts. But most striking of all was her growing fascination with the secret worlds of women – she documented a lesbian wedding, the life of a novice nun and made a major series on Muslim women, travelling throughout the Arab world.

But despite her success as a magazine photographer, by the late Seventies Arnold had become dissatisfied with the stringent demands of picture editors and the changing direction of mass-market publishing, and began to publish her extended photo essays in book form. In 1976, her monograph The Unretouched Woman appeared. It was undoubtedly her most significant and most personal photographic statement. She had always been a deeply private, even guarded woman, and so her introduction to The Unretouched Woman was revealing: "I have been poor and I wanted to document poverty; I had lost a child and I was obsessed by birth; I was interested in politics and I wanted to know how it affected our lives; I am a woman and I wanted to know about women."

By the early Eighties, Arnold was travelling all over the world making photographs for a series of books which reflected her personal view of modern society – In China came out in 1981, In America in 1983. She had become disenchanted with London as new social attitudes changed what she had seen as "the endearing British qualities of fair play, gentleness and concern for others."

When she exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in 1991, her photography looked back to a nation untouched by the consumer revolution, a country of artists and schoolgirls, friendly royalty and benign politicians, unworldly clerics and cheerful villagers, a ceremonious and antique society, where even the poor looked contented. Looking through In Britain (published to coincide with her National Portrait Gallery retrospective) is like studying a film set, correct in every detail yet fundamentally misleading.

But documentary photographers are always partial, and Eve Arnold understood the quixotic nature of the medium of photography as well as anyone. When she photographed a Britain which never was, she made it, as it is every artist's right to do, exactly as she wished it to be. From the raucous streets of Fifties' New York to the sublimity of an imagined England, she travelled restlessly, seeking to make sense of a provoking and ambiguous world.

Although Arnold became well-known to the British public through her NPG exhibition, it was not until 1995, with her giant retrospective at the Barbican Gallery in London, that she became one of photography's rare celebrities. The public, who queued for hours to get into the show, loved the warmth and humanity of her photographs, the glimpses it gave them of a world, which, through her camera, seemed both innocent and full of glamour. Visitors and critics alike were intrigued by the idea of this diminutive woman who travelled the world in search of the arresting image, the photogenic situation. The Royal Photographic Society awarded her a Fellowship and she was elected Master Photographer by the International Center of Photography in New York.

Her exhibition In Retrospect travelled the world, throughout Europe and on to a triumphant Australian tour in the late 1990s. She became an enthusiastic and knowledgeable advisor to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Yorkshire and in 1999 took part in the Magna Brava exhibition, when Magnum Photos celebrated its (still very few) women members with an extensive tour and publication.

In 2003, Eve Arnold was appointed an honorary OBE and the then Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell remarked that she had "elevated photography into the realm of art". Complimentary as this was, it was not necessarily an accolade that Eve Arnold would have approved of, or even deserved. For her, photography was photojournalism, pictures made for mass consumption, windows into the world, through which we could peer with curiosity and fascination.

Val Williams

Eve Arnold, photographer: born Philadelphia 21 April 1912; Hon OBE 2003; married 1948 Arnold Arnold (one son; marriage dissolved); died London 4 January 2012.

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