Shooting stars

Photography - Jillian Edelstein on the remarkable woman whose work falls between Marlene Dietrich's

When I met Eve Arnold on the eve of her 90th birthday she said: "Some people told me that I was a better writer than I was a photographer." This remark was made in the light of the publication of Film Journal, a photographic collection and memoir of her time behind the scenes in Hollywood. Whatever - bringing together a great body of work and many wonderful anecdotes, the journal is a treat.

The photographs were taken mainly during the Fifties and Sixties when the sun was setting on the heyday of glamour and mystique of the Hollywood studio system. The television era had begun, and by early 1960 the film studio monopoly had started to collapse. The studios were no longer allowed to exhibit as well as produce and distribute films. They had to get rid of their movie houses -and thus lose much of their control. This in turn affected the actors' relationship with the media. It was only when Ronald Reagan became president that the law was changed and they were again allowed to own cinemas.

The journal begins with a photographic session with Marlene Dietrich in 1952 and ends with shots of the (at the time) lesser-known actors in White Nights in 1984, Isabella Rossellini, Gregory Hines, Helen Mirren and Mikhail Baryshnikov. In the interim, Eve Arnold covered over 40 films starring Hollywood greats such as Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Richard Burton, Grace Kelly, Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando and Shirley MacLaine.

Eve Arnold was prolific during that transitional era. At this time, the studio lights became less "dazzling", the trend for the overlit studio portrait declined, and there was a call for a more documentary feel and a move towards greater realism by using ambient (available) light.

Celebrity was different then. A star might give a photographer time and trust. Eve Arnold had integrity. She was a strong and interesting personality in her own right, and friendships developed with her subjects as they trusted and confided in her. Using these privileges to her advantage, she produced a compelling series of intimate portraits; usually fluid, grainy, black and white images that showed the actors as they really were. Nowadays, "stardom" is about negotiating privacy in the wake of spoiled confidences and snooping lenses.

There is a lovely anecdote about Marlene Dietrich telling a friend how she had been "followed" by Arnold during an all-night rehearsal and recording session. When the friend asked why she had not stopped her, Dietrich replied that the photographer had "such authority" that she had not thought to do so.

Arnold writes with wit and charm. I particularly enjoyed the tales of Marilyn Monroe asking permission to brush her hair and then applying the bristle to her pubic hair; Marlene Dietrich recounting her night with JFK or going personally to the Magnum offices, while Arnold was out of town, to hunt down pictures of herself. Arnold recalls how Joan Crawford railed against Monroe as a disgrace to the industry for not wearing a girdle, as "her ass was hanging out". Then, a few weeks later, she met an excited Monroe who told her that she had just met the actress of her dreams . . . Joan Crawford. There is a great story about the fame-hungry Andy Warhol. I want to be recognised by the "smart world out there", he tells Arnold, who then had to help him find the power button on his camera in order to start shooting his movie.

The photographs of Paul Newman at the Actors Studio, of James Cagney and his wife dancing at Martha's Vineyard in 1958, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe going over their lines for The Misfits in 1960, Clark Gable running after a wild horse in the desert in Nevada all speak of a time long past. But Arnold is not famous only for her film work. Robert Capa put it perfectly when he said that her photography fell between "Marlene Dietrich's legs and sad potato pickers". Operating from the Magnum photo agency, of which she was a full member from 1955, she did exemplary photo reportage for various magazines, including Life, Esquire, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Newsweek, covering stories from Malcolm X to Marilyn Monroe, as well as producing books on China and other places.

In an era of naff celebrity, Eve Arnold's work is refreshing for its rare intimacy and photographic virtue.

Jillian Edelstein is a photographer. Her book Truth and Lies: stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is published by Granta Books

Film Journal by Eve Arnold is published by Bloomsbury. A selection of Arnold's photographs are exhibited at the Barbican (020 7638 8891), London EC2, until 26 August

This article first appeared in the 05 August 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Tony and Gordon want you to be happy