Impressions of Eve Arnold
Earlier this year (January 4, 2012 to be precise) an iconic figure in the realm of photography passed away. Eve Arnold was arguably most renowned for her shots of rich, famous and glitzy superstars and in particular pictures of Marilyn Monroe. But apart from the glamour shots she recorded the lives of labourers, nomads, fishermen, women all around the world with a passion. “It is the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how special it is.” she said. Personally I don’t think that can or even should even be applied to her work. Her photographs appear so effortless in their depiction of her subjects. To me her work cannot be resumed to attempts to depict beauty, rather I see work that demonstrates her personal interest in the world around her and highlights the evolutions, complexities and contradictions of her subjects. This is so achingly evident in her series of pictures of Marilyn Monroe, where Eve not only depicts the obvious glamour and sexuality but, oh, so fluently exposes the vulnerability and fragility that was such an essential part of the personality.
“What I have tried to do is involve the people I was photographing. To have them realize without saying so, that it was up to them to give me whatever they wanted to give me… if they were willing to give, I was willing to photograph.”
Perhaps, that just about sums up why she was so successful in photographing people. If you don’t extend your hand forward, no one is going to shake it. The all too rare (and perhaps even discouraged) ability to empathize with others, the polite, unobtrusive manner to gain someone’s trust and the amazing grace with which to create a rapport with those around her. All these qualities and many more just seemed so evidently a part of her personality and no doubt contributed to the beauty of her images.
I feel the following quote ties up very well with the previous one:
“A studio session ... provides the greatest chance for control. [But] even though there is total freedom, I still dislike studio photography and the contrived images that usually stem from this genre.”
Looking at studio portraits and fashion photography has always left me unsatisfied, because I always seem to get the feeling that there is something missing. Consciously, I may admire the technical skill in the lighting, pose or even concept, but instinctively, I remain unsatisfied. I guess, if I were to lie down on a leather couch and explain it to someone with a notepad and pen, I would find myself saying that the feeling was due to my inability to discover the real plot behind the elaborate scenario. Sincerity and a genuine smile are the hardest things to fake in life. Can a photograph of a person, no matter how well lit, posed, or how perfectly executed technically, cut off from his/her world and “isolated” in some unreal, make believe room really provide a glimpse into his/her soul? It is a contrived image, and will always remain so for anyone searching for sincerity.
Every documentary I have seen and everything I have read about Eve Arnold has left me with the impression of a formidable, intelligent and compassionate photographer and human being. Reading her obituary was really one of the rare occasions when I genuinely felt a pang of regret at the death of someone I have never met and who was so far removed from my life.
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Photo credits: Abdul Sami Haqqani.