Named ‘Master Photographer’ way back in 1955 by the International Center of Photography, New York City, which is considered the photographic world’s premier honour, Eve Arnold died just three months shy of her 100th birthday. Despite operating in a male-dominated profession, Eve Arnold became one of the most revered photo journalists of the 20th century.
Perhaps, Arnold's most memorable works in the public mind were images of Marilyn Monroe on the sets of ‘The Misfits’ (1961). In a career, spanning five decades she photographed Queen Elizabeth II, Malcolm X, Marlene, Jacqueline Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. More importantly, she travelled around the world, photographing in countries such as China, Russia, South Africa, Mongolia, Cuba and Afghanistan.
There was substantial heterogeneity in her work to match the longevity of her photographiccareer. Thus while the portraits of the rich and famous were an integral part of her portfolio, Arnold was equally respected for photographing ‘the poor, the old and the underdog.’ She said: ‘It's the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how special it is.’In fact, be it the ‘glitterati’ or the ‘disadvantaged’she always shot without the benefit of artificial lights, thus mirroring the often pathetic and banal in the lives of the former vis-a-vis the ordinary lives of the latter.
Born in 1912 to Russian immigrant parents in Philadelphia, USA, Arnold grew up knowing hardship first-hand. She brought that awareness to her work documenting social injustice in the United States and elsewhere. She studied in New York City and began working on a freelance basis for Magnum Photos, becoming a full member in 1957. Arnold left the United States and moved permanently to England in the 1960s with her son.
Early on in her career, Arnold covered the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago and the political movements of African Americans (especially the Black Muslims and Malcolm X) and of women.
The distinguishing feature in Arnold’s work is her close involvement with her subjects, irrespective of their social status. She included all her subjects in the photography process—be it royal family members, film stars, political prisoners or prostitutes.
She was comfortable documenting the lives of the poor and dispossessed, ‘migrant workers, civil-rights protestors of apartheid in South Africa, disabled Vietnam war veterans and Mongolian herdsmen.’Arnold didn’t see any dichotomy; in a BBC interview she once said: ‘I don't see anybody as either ordinary or extraordinary. I see them simply as people in front of my lens.’
At a Hollywood party, Marilyn Monroe, after seeing Arnold’s photos of Marlene Dietrich asked Arnold, ‘If you can do that well with Marlene, can you imagine what you could do with me?’ From then on, Arnold photographed her for Esquire and again on five more assignments during the next ten years. Arnold’s informal and endearing photographs captured Monroe’s beauty, glamour and sense of fun, as well as her darker moods and underlying vulnerability.
On her relationship with Monroe, Arnold remarked, ‘When we met, we were two young women starting out. She was a starlet, no place yet in the Hollywood hierarchy. I was beginning as a photographer. Neither one of us knew anything about our craft and that was a bond between us, so I don’t know where she ended and I began, or I ended and she began.’
Arnold documented life in the US and the UK for magazines likeLife, Look, Picture Post, Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, Geo, Stern, Epoca, Paris-Match and Sunday Times.
At the same time, Arnold’s film ‘Behind the Veil’ (1972) examined the position of women in Muslim society going inside Arabian hammams and harems; and her book The Unretouched Woman (1976) chronicled the lives of women worldwide.
As a photographer with multiple sensitivities, Arnold would return to her hometown, between paid assignments, to capture an unvarnished look at life in a small town, including the abysmal conditions in the migrant labour camps of black potato pickers. Her exuberant image of a Cuban couple with their child was selected in 1955 for the world-touring Museum of Modern Art exhibition ‘The Family of Man,’ and seen by 9 million visitors.
One of her fond dreams was to shoot China for which she finally got permission when she was 67 years old! Nevertheless she took up the assignment with great gusto working on it for more than five months. She travelled over 40,000 miles in locations from Beijing to Mongolia, documenting the people’s way of life, their customs and their environment.
The images of China paved the way for her first major solo exhibition in 1980, which offered an insight into daily life in China that was rarely seen before. In the same year, she received the National Book Award for In China and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Magazine Photographers.
Despite the difficult times she lived in, wanderlust was a passion for Arnold. She travelled the world-- China, Mongolia, the Soviet Union, Cuba, South Africa and Afghanistan.
While much of her works were published in picture magazines during their heyday from the 1950s to the 1980s, Arnold often developed her themes so extensively that they merited full-length books. She took the subject of women further in her books, The Unretouched Woman and All in a Day's Work, and, using her long stays abroad, in the series In China, In America and The Great British (published in the UK as Eve Arnold in Britain).
Her black-and-white selection for The Great British includes images from the 1960s showing a country where class divisions are still rife, from the privileged enjoying a royal life, to an old war veteran, being bathed in a rundown Salvation Army hostel; from a then vulnerable Margaret Thatcher on the election trail to images of the new multiculturalism of the cities.
She received a National Book Award for In China, and she had two best-selling books, Marilyn Monroe: An Appreciationand Private View: Inside Baryshnikov’s American Ballet Theatre. Arnold was the recipient in 1980 of the lifetime achievement award of the American Society of Magazine Photographers.
Arnold was conferred an OBE in 2003. Earlier in the 1990s, she was made fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and elected ‘Master Photographer’ – the world’s most prestigious photographic honour – by New York’s International Center of Photography. She was bestowed with the Kraszna-Krausz Book Award for In Retrospect. She had published over a dozen books.
In the late 1990s, after spending almost 50 years with the camera, Eve Arnold retired as she could no longer hold the camera. She died in London in 2012, just three months short of her 100th birthday. She led a long and rewarding life doing things that she was most passionate about, not worrying about the handicaps and challenges.
As she once quipped, ‘I have never regretted my decision to become a photographer because it’s the most demanding thing I have ever done. There are so many dimensions to it. I feel that in photography I’m using my creative ability to the absolute maximum.’
Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.