Life & Culture

The Jewish photographer who brilliantly captured the glamour of Marilyn Monroe

The Magnum pioneer was as obsessed with poverty as she was with beauty, as a new exhibition of her work demonstrates


Pioneering photographer Eve Arnold’s first retrospective in a decade could almost have been called Knowing Marilyn Monroe. Her face graces the publicity poster for the exhibition and there is an entire room of images of the actress Arnold made famous after they both met early on in their careers.

However, from migratory potato pickers and working-class models in Harlem to veiled concubines in harems in the Middle East, the unknown get equal billing in To Know About Women, which has just opened at Newlands House Gallery, in Sussex.

“It would have been a bit vacuous to focus only on celebrities when Eve had such a passion for civil rights,” says Maya Binkin, the Israeli-born curator of the show.

The American photojournalist, who was the first woman to join the Magnum Photos agency, also had a passion for hard-working women, famous or not.

Some of the images of Monroe depict her mid-slog on set and there are others of Marlene Dietrich in a recording session and without make-up, of Joan Crawford on the phone to her agent, wearing only a face mask and her underwear, and of Elizabeth Taylor in the pub with a pack of sausages she had bought for that night’s dinner.

All the images are unposed, including the poster image of Monroe between the sheets in full make-up.

“They were such close friends, when Marilyn was napping on set, Eve could just wander in and take a picture,” says the artist’s grandson, Michael Arnold, the son of Eve’s only child, Frank.

For his part, Michael first had an inkling that the bubbe who made him chicken soup wasn’t perhaps like other people’s bubbes when he was just five.

“Eve was doing the set photography for the 1985 film White Nights, and I was made a fuss of by Isabella Rossellini and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

"They were so respectful of her I realised she must be very important,” says Arnold, an acupuncturist living in London’s Mill Hill, and the person in charge of his grandmother’s photography archive.

He got to know his grandmother better when he turned 12 and his family moved from Manchester to London. “My grandmother lived in Mount Street, Mayfair, where in the 1960s she had managed to buy a flat for £10,000.

“It was on the third floor and there was no lift, but even at the age of 90 she was climbing the stairs.

"Five years previously she travelled to Cuba to photograph a woman she had met there four decades ago. “She was no ordinary granny, but she was a very close friend with whom I could be myself.”

But she did have a strong sense of family. The day Michael was born, Eve wrote him a letter explaining who he was — “her Ukrainian Jewish roots, my grandfather’s German Jewish ones and my mother’s non-Jewish and Yorkshire background”.

Her parents fled the pogroms of Ukraine for the safety of America at the turn of the 20th century.

But even though her father, William, was a rabbi, he could only find work as a pedlar and the Cohens lived in poverty in Philadelphia.

Eve, born in 1912 and the seventh of nine children, told her grandson that her mother, Bessie, would keep a pot of water on the boil for hours to deceive the neighbours into thinking that food was being prepared, when, in fact, there was no money for any. And certainly not for the blinis and caviar to which Eve would treat him when he was growing up.

There was also no money for a college education. Eve’s first jobs were as a secretary and a bookkeeper for an estate agent, and she was given her first camera, a Rolleicord, by a boyfriend.

She was 31 before she moved to New York where she got a job at America’s first automated film processing factory plant, in Hoboken, New Jersey.

In 1948 she married Arnold Schmitz, an industrial engineer, he would go on to change his surname to Arnold because, as Frank told him, “he didn’t want to be identified as a Jew in Germany or a German in the United States”.

Eve gave up her job in the film-processing factory to look after baby Frank, but she was restless and keen to develop her then fledgling photography skills. She signed up for a course led by the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch, who also tutored Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

The course would change her life and when there was a fashion assignment, Eve seized her moment. She was desperate to avoid the clichés “of a woman looking like a doll in a studio where everything was perfectly set up and everyone was white,” says Blinkin.

Instead, she took backstage pictures of the then unreported black fashion shows that took place in Harlem every week, which Frank’s nanny told her about.

Brodovitch was so impressed with his pupil’s images, unheard of in 1950 when fashion photography was all about the catwalk, that he sent her back to take more. In the end, she spent a year covering the Harlem shows.

“It was a time when the fashion world ignored black people,” says Binkin. But fascinated as he was by her work, Brodovitch declined to publish the images in Harper’s Bazaar.

Eventually, they ran in Picture Post in England, but the accompanying “racist and patronising” text horrified Arnold, who at that point determined to have editorial control of her work thereon.

Fortunately, Magnum, which she joined in 1951, supported her in this.

During her time with the agency, Arnold became obsessed with capturing images of childbirth, probably because of the hysterectomy she had following a miscarriage, says Binkin.

Her iconic image of a newborn clutching its mother’s finger would be used to sell everything from cornflakes to insurance and her documentation of the first five minutes of a baby’s life made an eight-page spread in Life magazine.

It was 1954 and the realities of childbirth were taboo so the shoot caused a sensation. Though not for the photographer’s mother. “‘Meh, what’s there to be proud of,’ was the best Eve got from Bessie,” says Michael.

Eve herself was more empathetic. When she photographed Monroe on the set of The Misfits, her last movie, she captured the actor struggling to learn her lines, and became convinced she was losing the plot and that her marriage to Arthur Miller, who wrote the screenplay for the film and who accompanied his wife on set, was moribund.

“My most poignant memory of Marilyn is of how distressed, troubled and still radiant she looked when I arrived in Nevada,” the photographer wrote in a memoir.

“It occurred to me then that when she had lived with the fantasy of Marilyn that she had created, that fantasy had sustained her, but now the reality had caught up with her and she found it too much to bear.”

Eve came to London in 1962 and although she lived the rest of her life in the city, frequently working on stories for the Sunday Times colour supplement, she was never finished with the US.

In fact, two years previously she had undertaken one of her most perilous assignments, photographing Malcolm X, the public face of the Nation of Islam, at rallies from Washington to New York to Chicago.

She met hostility not only because she was a white woman but also because she was a Jew; the Nation of Islam had forged an alliance with the American Nazi Party.

At one rally, in Harlem, the head of the party George Lincoln Rockwell, hissed at her: “I’ll make a bar of soap out of you.” To which she hissed back: “As long as it isn’t a lampshade.”

But she was shaken, says Binkin, and left the rally to cries of “kill the white bitch”, and with burn marks on the back of her sweater where cigarettes had been stubbed out.

Thinking perhaps of her Magnum mentors Robert Capa and Werner Bischof, who had been killed on assignment, in 1954, “the possibility of her coming to harm was not an abstract concept”, says Binkin.

At the Sunday Times, Arnold who had hitherto preferred working in black and white, burst into colour with great enthusiasm, and began travelling the world in search of new subjects to document.

She found them in harems and in the wastelands of China, having been granted a visa to the country by the regime after 15 years of annual applications. In 1979, aged 67, she published the bestselling photography book In China.

She would also photograph a succession of US presidents and First Ladies and the late Queen Elizabeth II. But really her heart lay elsewhere.

In her own words: “I have been poor and I wanted to document poverty; I had lost a child and I was obsessed with 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.”

‘To Know About Women: The Photography of Eve Arnold’ runs at Newlands House, Petworth, West Sussex until January 7, 2024

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