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Evolution of a Goddess
In early November, The New York Times ran an article about fashion photographer Lillian Bassman, who was, in the 1940s and '50s, a leading light at Harper's Bazaar, where her striking, experimental fashion images first appeared. Then, as times and tastes changed, she fell into obscurity, and almost stopped taking pictures altogether. A small number of photographic connoisseurs remembered her work and spoke of it with the utmost regard, but to the rest of the world, she had become a nonperson.
Bassman "is as important to fashion photography as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn," gallery owner Peter Fetterman told the Times. "She just didn't get the recognition they got."
This has been the plight of numerous female photographers, especially in America; they could always hold their own with their male counterparts - and, in many instances, got the better of them - but generally, they never got the commensurate critical attention and praise showered on the boys.
This is also true of Eve Arnold, one of the most accomplished photographers of the 20th century, no matter of what gender. Now in her 90s, she has been a longtime member of the Magnum photographic cooperative, and could keep up with all of the boys in that group, who included some of the greatest photographers in the world. Among them were Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and Elliott Erwitt.
To this short list of neglected women could also be added two other Jewish photographers, Ruth Orkin and Helen Levitt. It's not that they've been ignored in critical circles, just that they've never really been given their due.
Arnold is a solid member of the pack. A native of Philadelphia, she was born here in 1913, of immigrant parents from Russia. According to the Magnum Web site, she began to photograph while working at a photo-finishing plant in New York City in 1946. She eventually spent six weeks in 1948 studying photography with Alexei Brodovitch at the New School for Social Research.
Her association with Magnum began in 1951; four years later, she became a full member. She has worked in various locales throughout America, in England (where she has been based since 1962) and in China. Her books include In China, In America, In Britain, Eve Arnold: In Retrospect, Private View: Inside Baryshnikov's American Ballet Theatre andFilm Journal.
Recently, Abrams reissued her 1987 volume Marilyn Monroe, and its stunning layouts may bring her some much-needed recognition.
One of the most intriguing things about the book is that this least visible of women pointed her camera at one of the most visible and most often photographed women in the world. And in some sense, Arnold - a short, intense, dark-haired Jewish woman - helped create the Monroe image, perhaps America's most famous shiksa goddess.
This becomes exceedingly clear as you make your way through the book and watch as Monroe turns from a ripe, languid young woman to a full-fledged sex goddess, then, sadly, on to a plumper, less focused older woman with deep lines beneath her eyes. Other wear-and-tear that her profligate life imposed upon her body are also caught in Arnold's generally sympathetic lens.
But the magic is always present; the glow is stronger at some times than others, but never more apparent than when the movie star is basking in the glow of her fans' adulation.
And nowhere is the Jewish-gentile axis more pronounced than in the photos Arnold took of Monroe with her Jewish intellectual husband, Arthur Miller, on their Connecticut farm or on the set of the film The Misfits, which Miller wrote for his famous wife, even as their marriage was coming apart at the seams.
As many have said of Monroe, she appeared to make love to the camera, and no camera seems more receptive and accepting - despite the emotional weather battering Monroe's personal terrain - than was this other woman's, Arnold's.