The first week of the new year brought with it the passing of Eve Arnold, one of the first women to earn recognition as a photojournalist in the mid-twentieth century. Though she is perhaps best known for capturing celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford in rare, unguarded moments, Arnold should also be recognized for the political and social commentaries her archives provide.
After receiving her first camera in her late thirties, Arnold abandoned her medical studies to pursue an art that, for her, was primarily self-taught. Arnold took a single photography class at the New School, during which she produced a project on Harlem fashion in the 1950s. The photos led to Arnold’s acceptance as the first female member of the Magnum Photos cooperative, and helped her gain the respect of Malcolm X, whose civil rights work she followed and visually recorded for two years.
In 1957, Arnold photographed Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits, taking a number of candid pictures of the actress that were quickly regarded as iconic. In many of this week’s articles remembering and commemorating Arnold’s work, these and other photos of celebrities have overshadowed the political images and social commentary that make up the true bulk of her legacy: for nearly fifty years, the photographer traveled to countries like China, the Former Soviet Union, Egypt, Afghanistan and more to document the lives and work of people who were far from famous. It was for this work that Arnold earned recognitions such as a Notable Book Award for In China, honorary doctorates from three universities, and an OBE (Order of the British Empire) from the British government.
While the Monroe photos probably shouldn’t be considered Arnold’s greatest achievement, it’s also important that they be remembered. About her former mentor, Beeban Kidron writes, “For Eve everyone was equal and all situations contained the potential for beauty and interrogation” (Kidron spent two years working as Arnold’s assistant and eventually went on to direct the film adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit). Taken in this regard, Eve Arnold’s photographs of Marilyn Monroe are no more and no less significant than her photos of any other people: They simply mark a woman’s life and her work.
You can read more about Kidron’s relationship with Arnold from the perspective of both women in this 1996 interview.
Listen to or read the transcript of this BBC interview with Arnold, which includes her reflections on “photographer” vs. “woman photographer,” moving on from the need to capture images, and Margaret Thatcher (whose photos, it seems, Arnold actively did not want to be remembered for).
Further reading: Slate has a slideshow up of 25 photos Arnold took while filming Behind the Veil in Afghanistan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.