Eve Arnold and the vulnerable sitter…

On January 4th, the world lost a great photographer in Eve Arnold.

Now as much as she sounds like an amazing woman (not having any personal connection to her myself, unlike here), I don’t want to just write another obituary, I think plenty of people have covered that off better than I ever could.  Once the anecdotes have been recounted, history written and life appraised, I want to talk about what is left now that she is gone: the photographs.

One word which I have seen in a number of pieces on Eve over the last couple of weeks is “vulnerable”.  This is not referring to her, but to the way she was able to capture a moment with almost anybody from a bar girl in Cuba to Malcolm X, where their guard slips just a little, there is a distraction elsewhere, and a little glimpse of their personal world is given.  But at the same time, we’re not talking about the same slipped guard seen in a Diane Arbus or Weegee, something that is slightly “grotesque” or wanting to prove a point in a slightly “dark” way, showing the underbelly of society.  Further, it is not the trashy “OMG, she’s got no make-up LOL!” of modern paparazzi.  This guard protects a gentle humanity that often major personalities have to hide in order to succeed in a more cut-throat world of Hollywood or politics.

Copyright, Magnum

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, A Pub in Shepperton, 1963

This photograph is of, at the time, the hottest couple in Hollywood… in a boozer in Shepperton… with a packet of sausages.  It is difficult to imagine how to get more “off duty” than this yet at the same time, Burton still has the incredible intensity in his gaze that he brought to many a role in the same way Taylor is, well, stunning.  Yet I asked myself, are they aware, so are playing the part, or is this just another couple in the pub, her planning a recipe for the sausages, him arguing with some off camera foe on who should be flyhalf for Wales?  As a photographer of people, Arnold was able to achieve what any good photograph of people should do and that is make you think about the people in it, to wonder “what are they thinking?”, “What are they looking at?”, the kind of questions that hold your attention to the photograph.  This picture is also wonderfully composed.  Although in reality they are not looking at each other, their eyes are pointed towards their beloved with no visual distraction in the foreground, making my eyes play an ocular ping-pong between the angst and serenity of the two faces.

When Arnold spent time shadowing Margaret Thatcher in ’77 it is said (it’s on the internet, so must be true!) that Thatcher was the only sitter who ever told Arnold how to take the photos.  Whether you love her or hate her (there’s never just a “like” with Thatcher is there?) this is believable.  Yet at the same time, the images left behind still manage to show, and I’m going to be controversial for some, a vulnerability to the Iron Lady (and long before Meryl Streep started doing the scary impressions).  An image that springs to mind (yet the internet keeps from me) shows Mrs T perched  on a chair on top of what looks like a wooden tea-chest (kids ask your grandparents) in front of a bust of Winston Churchill.  The wonderful composition of that picture shows Thatcher almost as a lost little girl photographed with her favourite star in Madame Tussaud’s with the imposing bronze Winnie looming over her shoulder.  She does not appear to be the same confident person we know from newsreel.  Yet again, this sneaky vulnerability peeps through as though sub-consciously she can feel the gaze of history watching over her as she begins her journey to take her own piece of it.

Joan Crawford, taken by Eve in 1959

This photograph of Joan Crawford, taken in 1959 also defies some of the convention of portraiture in how it depicts the humanity of someone so used to living behind a mask.  To my eye there is a hint of sadness in the way Crawford is preening.  Here is a woman who was a former chorus line girl, movie starlet during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system and formed one half of the Burton/Taylor of their day when she married Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. in 1929.  But what Arnold captures in this shot is an almost wistful gaze of lost youth, the pressures of trying to maintain life in the Hollywood spotlight that is all too eager to highlight the cracks in the paint-work.  But as I said before, this is not a pap or “look how old and ugly she is!” shot, there is compassion in how it has been taken and an elegance in what has been shown.  As far as the shot itself, the frame within a frame element is very effectively used.  I find that even though, as they are both reflections, we know Joan Crawford can’t pull two faces at once, somehow this happens.  In the top, main mirror, visible to all in the room, appears the dignified elegant movie star.  Yet in the bottom, I find the melancholy.  Here she is looking at herself and this is where the guard goes down as it is much harder to hide from yourself.  The longer I look at it I wonder, again as with the Burton/Taylor image, what is she thinking? Is she mentally superimposing her younger self  in a sort of depressed Snow-White-Wicked-Witch-mirror-mirror request or hoping that what she sees is not how she looks but in fact like Dorian Gray, the older the reflection, the younger the flesh?

It is these elements of the person behind the persona that have always drawn me to photographs like these.  It is not always necessary to show that someone well-known is human whilst simultaneously ridiculing them (yes I’m looking at you Darren Lyons).  It could be that people disagree with me.  There are some who think that she was only a well-known photographer for her shots of Marilyn Monroe (pictures that I purposefully wanted to avoid talking about here so as not to add to this perception).  But the fact that she could do it again and again, with such a diverse group of sitters shows me that there is more to it than that.

I have a feeling that as images become more exploitative, to make their point and fight to be seen, the skill of Arnold in showing vulnerability yet maintaining humanity and dignity will be a hard act to follow.

But then, if it were so easy, the photographs left behind by Eve Arnold, wouldn’t be as special.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s