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“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.”
The pioneering photo-journalist, Eve Arnold, died on January 4th, 2012, at a London nursing home, three months short of her centenary.
She was born in Philadelphia on April 21, 1912, the seventh of nine children. Her father, William Cohen, was a Rabbi. He and his wife, Bessie, had come to America to escape anti-semitic persecution in Russia. Though well-educated, he could only find work as a pedlar, and Eve grew up in poverty.
She had planned to study medicine. But while Eve was working as a bookkeeper for a New York estate agent during World War II, a boyfriend gave her a Rolleicord camera. In 1943, she answered a newspaper ad asking for an ‘amateur photographer’, and became manager of America’s first automated film processing plant, in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Apart from a six-week course at the New School for Social Research, taught by Alexey Brodovitch, art director at ‘Harper’s Bazaar’, who taught her the basics of style and composition, along with unsparing critiques from the likes of Richard Avedon, Eve had no formal training and spent the rest of her life ‘learning by doing’.
Her first assignment was in 1950, covering fashion shows that took place daily in Harlem’s deconsecrated churches. “She found her way backstage to try to take more discreet pictures, hoping that the people working there would be too busy to notice her,” Brigitte Lardinois wrote in ‘Eve Arnold’s People’ (2009.) “This was a very novel way of photographing fashion; in those days fashion was all about posing in a studio, in a carefully controlled environment, while Eve was pursuing an exercise in pure photo reportage.”
America was still heavily segregated in 1950, and mainstream magazines seldom featured black people. However, Eve’s photos were syndicated throughout Europe. Unhappy with the snide captioning in Britain’s ‘Picture Post’, she vowed that all her pictures should henceforth speak for themselves.
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In 1951, she approached Magnum Photos, the co-operative established four years previously by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier- Bresson. At around the same time, Inge Morath joined Magnum’s Paris office. Together, they became the agency’s first female photo- journalists.
“Eve called Magnum a family – where ‘you love them all but you don’t necessarily like them all,’” Lardinois wrote. “Bresson taught her how to tell a story in a single definitive image…From Inge Morath she learned how to introduce lightness into her photographs; Ernst Haas taught her about colour; and Erich Hartmann taught her technical restraint and discipline. She discussed storylines with Burt Glinn and Dennis Stock. And she credits Elliott Erwitt with showing her how humour works in photography.”
“I met Eve Arnold at the beginning of my career,” Erwitt recalled. “At that time, married and with a young son, Eve was essentially a home-maker – a Long Island housewife and mother living in the village of Port Jefferson baking very good cookies.” Erwitt added that for Eve, photography “may have been a way to overcome the tedium of domesticity.”
Arnold later complained of being constantly offered second-rate, ‘women’s page’ assignments. “Magnum was a macho culture when Eve started there,” Mary Panzer, former curator of Washington’s National Portrait Gallery, told the ‘Los Angeles Times’.
Eve had married Arnold Arnold, an industrial engineer, in 1948. It was he who, in 1951, suggested that Eve cover the thousands of black southerners who had travelled north to work long, low-paid hours harvesting crops, and slept in crowded, ramshackle camps in Suffolk County, Long Island.
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