Chances are, you’re more familiar with Eve Arnold’s photographs than you are with the photographer herself, who died at the age of 99 in 2012. Arnold’s images, published in an array of legendary periodicals including Life and London’s Sunday Times, captured the big personalities of her day in moments of reflection and unguarded repose. Joan Crawford receives spa treatments and gets fitted for a new dress; Malcolm X reclines with his hands cradling the back of his head; Marilyn Monroe applies makeup in a bathroom mirror; Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton relax at a pub in Shepperton, England, enjoying a respite from Burton’s work on the set of “Becket.” Arnold traveled on assignment to China, Russia, South Africa and Afghanistan, photographing weddings, hospitals, picnics, schools and street scenes. Over the course of her career, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire, named a master photographer by the International Center of Photography in New York, and given a lifetime achievement award by the American Society of Magazine Photographers. You’ve seen many of Arnold’s images before, but you might not know that the woman who shot them was a Long Island housewife until she took her first photography class at the age of 38 in 1950.
Evidently, it was some class.
Eve Cohen was born in Philadelphia in 1912, the fifth of 10 children of Ukrainian immigrants who spoke little English and struggled to make a life for their family in the United States. Curious and independent from an early age, Eve explored her neighborhood, which she called “strange and tumbledown,” and relished Saturdays at the local movie house. Between movie scenes and street scenes, she was taking in both the posh fantasies of 1920s Hollywood and the gritty reality of Philadelphia’s working poor. Both were full of stories, and that duality of glamour and struggle ultimately characterized the breadth of her work as a photojournalist.
As a young woman, she took pre-med classes at night while working as a bookkeeper by day, but in 1943 she felt called to move to New York City. It was there that she took a rather quotidian job that prepared her for a career she hadn’t envisioned. She became a supervisor at Stanbi Photos in Hoboken, N.J., a large processing plant where she cut and inspected pictures, supervised male colleagues and learned the technical skills necessary to process film and print photographs.
After marrying industrial designer Arnold Arnold and giving birth to a son, she lived the life of a postwar Long Island wife and mother until undergoing her first and only formal instruction in photography. Her six-week class at the New School for Social Research was taught by renowned Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch. Arnold’s final project for the class was a portfolio of images she shot at a Harlem fashion show that depicted models making their pre-show preparations with unselfconscious ease. In that series, Arnold captured the rarely seen “staff only” side of a public spectacle, a point of view that became her trademark. Perhaps due to her persistence and willingness to travel far, work long hours and venture into parts unknown, or because she was petite, female and physically unthreatening, she developed a reputation for being able to take pictures that no one else could. She would seem to disappear and, doing so, to let her subjects be themselves.
Magnum Photos, an international cooperative that Arnold joined in 1951, was founded in Paris in 1947 by a group of now-legendary photojournalists including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Its members owned the copyrights to their work, giving them great autonomy and allowing them to publish in a wide variety of outlets. Unlike many of the swashbuckling founding members, who’d made their names documenting the Spanish Civil War and World War II, Arnold was an expert on the domestic and the intimate. Though she had been driven to move to New York alone and had married late (at age 36) for someone of her generation, she was also a neighborhood girl from a large family who observed human interactions on a small scale. She used that approach for the movie stars she grew to know well over the years and for total strangers in far-flung locales.
Arnold published numerous volumes of her work over the years, and there are several anthologies of her photographs by others, but this new book is different because, alongside the photographer’s indelible images, Janine di Giovanni has inserted highlights from her subject’s notebooks, letters and meticulously detailed index cards. Recently acquired by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the documents flesh out the famously private Arnold’s creative process in ways that are both inspiring and fascinating. She shot her images primarily with natural light using a Pentax camera, and her voluminous contact sheets catalogue the nearly 750,000 photographs she took during her career.
The book isn’t rich in analysis and doesn’t attempt to place Arnold within any larger context beyond the world of Magnum Photos and the visual landscape of her own work. But the chance to glimpse some of her best photographs alongside the handwritten notes, typed index cards and marked-up contact sheets that reveal her own reactions to (and opinions of) her images contributes something new and valuable to her unique and highly original legacy.
Sarah Archer is a writer and curator who lives in Philadelphia.
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