The rabbi's daughter who photographed the stars

How did Eve Arnold become one of the acclaimed photographers of the 20th century? Being extremely short helped

By Melanie Abrams, February 10, 2011
Eve Arnold’s image of Marilyn Monroe filming The Misfits in the Nevada desert in 1960

Eve Arnold’s image of Marilyn Monroe filming The Misfits in the Nevada desert in 1960

Eve Arnold became one of world's most famous photographers by learning to be invisible. In the decades after the Second World War she gained unprecedented access to film stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich and public figures such as Malcolm X, and produced intimate images as iconic as their subjects. And all by acquiring the happy knack of blending into the background.

Not that she started out as a chronicler of celebrity. Arnold, who is now 98, was the first female member of the prestigious Magnum photo agency, founded by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1947. Like them, she made her name in photo-journalism, capturing life on the streets of Russia, China, and Afghanistan.

Examples of both sides of her work are currently on show at a gallery in London. The exhibition includes her images of a vulnerable Monroe on the set of The Misfits in 1960, the last film the star completed before she died. There is also the shot of a wizened Chinese woman caught in her doorway, and Arnold's own favourite photo - a close-up of the hands of a mother and her baby in the first five minutes of life.

"Arnold pushed the boundaries of how to enter the intimate spaces of people," says Paul Lowe, a lecturer in photo-journalism and a colleague from the Magnum days. "She is about coaxing the image out of people rather than grabbing in the heat of the moment. Most photographers are expansive and forceful; her approach was gentle and quiet."

Her tactic was to avoid being noticed. Her height helped. "She was tiny - 4ft 10in - and unthreatening. She did everything informally, so you didn't realise she was there," says Linni Campbell, her personal assistant for 40 years.

Arnold: learnt the trick of not being noticed

Arnold: learnt the trick of not being noticed

She knew the value of creating an atmosphere in which her subjects could relax, and to that end rarely asked them to pose for shots. "If she saw me noticing the camera, she stopped photographing me," recalled Isabella Rossellini, whom Arnold shot on the set of White Nights, in 1985.

Her rapport with her subjects is legendary. She knew Monroe, for example, for 10 years and followed Malcolm X for a year. "If you are careful with people, they will offer you part of themselves. That is the big secret," she has said.

People trusted her. She once returned to Joan Crawford nude photographs, which Crawford had drunkenly insisted she take the day before.

Arnold's skills were largely self taught. The seventh child of Rabbi Velvel Sklarski and his wife, Bosya, who were immigrants to the United States from Odessa, she spent her early adult life on Long Island as a housewife, and mother. It was not until she was 38 that she acted upon her interest in photography by taking a six-week course run by Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art editor at Harper's Bazaar.

Her first job, documenting fashion shows in 1950s Harlem, was published by the British magazine, Picture Post, in 1951. Her back-stage view brought reportage to fashion and at the same time revealed this mostly black neighbourhood of New York to white Americans who never went there.

These were the photos that caught Capa's eye and marked the beginning of Arnold's career-long interest in persecuted minorities, something that may have been influenced by her own Jewish background. "Her ability to capture what injustice was all about came from her knowledge of the pogroms. Where her family came from was always with her," says Brigitte Lardinois, author of Eve Arnold's People and a former Magnum colleague.

Arnold was the only white person allowed into the intimidating black Muslim meetings held by Malcom X in the 1960s. Twenty years later, she photographed machine gun-toting Ku Klux Klan members in Texas.

In 1962, she left the US and moved to Britain, and has lived here ever since. Settled in London, she began a long collaboration with the newly created Sunday Times Magazine. Her images were always different from other photographers. During her assignment in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, for example, she took pictures at the divorce courts and maternity hospitals, not the military parades. "She didn't photograph the obvious. She photographed everyday life. Her images give a more human and intimate view, but one which is universal," says Lowe.

Arnold retired in 1997. Reflecting on her career, she pinpointed her informal, low-tech method of working as key to her success. "I look for a sense of reality with everything I did. I didn't work in a studio, I didn't light anything. I found a way of working which pleased me because I didn't have to frighten people with heavy equipment. It was that little black box and me."

Eve Arnold is on at Chris Beetles Fine Photographs until March 5, London W1. Details on 020 7434 4319 or visit

Last updated: 11:05am, February 11 2011