Posted by Kay
Many of you have seen the work of photojournalist Eve Arnold from the photographs of Marilyn Monroe on the set of John Huston’s 1960 film The Misfits when the renowned photojournalism agency Magnum were given exclusive access. Eve was on the set in Nevada for 4 months along with others in the agency at the time (Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson & Inge Morath) and was the first woman ever to work at the cooperative.
Eve first met Marilyn when they were both at early stages of their careers and later recalled “At photo sessions, she was in total control, she manipulated everything-me, the camera and I never met anyone who could make them respond the way she did”. Marilyn said of Eve after seeing her work with Marlene Dietrich; “If you could do that well with Marlene, can you imagine what you can do with me?”
Born Eve Cohen on April 21 1912 in Philadelphia to Russian Jewish parents who had fled persecution, Eve was one of nine children. Her interest in photography began in 1946, after being given a camera by her boyfriend after working in a film processing plant in New York. Inspired to become a pro by (her words “exalted photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa”) she applied to Magnum and to her surprise, they accepted.
Her first story of migrant workers near her home in Long Island went down well, and after 3 years she became a fully fledged member of Magnum. According to Life Magazine she went on to ‘offer a window into many of the cultural touchstones and most of the figures who helped shape the second half of the 20th century.’
Whilst at The New School in the 1950’s, Eve shot a fashion essay set in an Abyssinian church in Harlem which was a centre of the Civil Rights Movement. It was later published in England’s Picture Post. These images archive a glorious 1950’s subculture where up to 300 fashion shows were held every year, many of them showcasing clothes that local seamstresses made or that models made themselves. Some of them were a subtle form of protest at the white fashion industry in New York and were a great source of pride within local black industry. Such a wonderful glimpse into a uniquely evolving community, how fortunate for us that Eve was there to archive it.
A model that stood out for me (it’s how I came across the Harlem fashion shows) is Charlotte Stribling, better known as ‘Fabulous‘.
Little is known of this stylish gal with the blonde, plaited hair rolls but according to the Black Studies Database ‘Fabulous had a huge personal following and was one of the most sought after models in the area’.
The courage she had was extraordinary. While at a Nation of Islam rally, Eve took a picture of George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party (who had forged an alliance with the Nation of Islam) and as she raised her camera, Rockwell hissed at her and said “I’ll make a bar of soap out of you”.
Despots aside, Eve developed trusting bonds with most of the major dames of the 20th century, such as Joan Crawford, in her fifties and keen to maintain her star status.
“The first time I photographed Joan Crawford she took off her clothes, stood in the nude and insisted I photograph her” Eve said at the beginning of what would be a relationship full of candid photographs of the Hollywood star.
Her photographs weren’t flattering in the fashion or Hollywood sense and that was never the point. In her book Film Journal she writes, “Studio photographers like Hurrell deal in dreams. The photojournalist dealt with reality, using whatever light was available, not posing, not retouching, but letting the personality and the situation come through”.
Things had changed across 110th St since Eve first shot her career-making fashion essay of 1950 when she was told that ‘if a woman stopped straightening her hair, her mother would act like there had been a death in the family’.
‘Black is Beautiful’ sought to dispel the notion that to be black was inherently ugly, to stop trying to eliminate African American traits by attempting to straighten their hair, to let their curls grow out in Afros, to stop lightening or bleaching their skin, to see it as beautiful shades of Ebony. Eve was in Harlem again to photograph it all.
In 1968 Eve took sensual, natural pictures of actress Cicely Tyson who, previously had caused a stir by ‘going natural’ just before she was about to do a live TV play about an emerging African nation. She didn’t like her long, straightened hair for the part and had it cut off. The play was a success and it was from this point many women dared to go Afro and in Eve’s words “to accept themselves as black and beautiful”. There was a reluctant barber but the publicity brought him so much publicity that he “made his pile and retired” said Eve.
Black is beautiful Black is beautiful Black is beautiful Eve e Model Arlene Hawkins was another proud exponent of the new look
“I have been poor and I wanted to photograph 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.“
The words of Eve Arnold who photographed all of this and much, much more in her 99 years before her death in 2012.
For me, Eve is a woman without borders in a world where there are too many of them. She continues to be a complete inspiration.