FLASHBACK: LUNCH WITH EVE ARNOLD
The death of the great documentary photographer Eve Arnold on January 4 was not exactly unexpected—she was 99, after all—but it caught many people up short, including me. Eve’s outsize stamina and spirit as well as her matchless ability to “record the essence of a subject in the 125th of a second,” as she put it, fooled us into thinking she could go on forever.
Hers was a familiar name in our household long before I ever met her. My parents, both writers and editors on small southern dailies, always had copies of Look and Life on the coffee table, and I learned early on to pay attention to bylines and photo credits, and to follow a worthy reporter’s work with interest. My mother, in particular, found great satisfaction in Eve Arnold’s groundbreaking photo essays, whether on the road with Malcolm X, in a field with migrant potato pickers, or behind the scenes with Marlene Dietrich or Marilyn Monroe.
In 1978, I landed my first job in New York, at Alfred A. Knopf, and there I was introduced to the intrepid Eve about a year later. A small dynamo with impeccable trousers and equally impeccable manners, she had just returned from criss-crossing mainland China. Accompanied by an entourage of one—an interpreter—she’d logged 40,000 miles to collect material for the book In China. Although Eve had shot her most iconic images in black-and-white, she was an early proponent of color and felt from the start that would best suit her purposes here.
“The eye sees in color,” she wrote. “Black-and-white, beautiful though it is, is an abstraction.” She preferred simple, straightforward compositions and rich, painterly hues. Coinciding with publication was her first solo exhibition, of 104 luminous Type-C and dye-transfer prints made from her 35 mm transparencies, at the Brooklyn Museum.
Born in Philadelphia to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents and a resident of London since the 1960s, Eve was mindful of the effort entailed in fitting in somewhere new. I wasn’t the first assistant she took under her wing.
One day she showed up, dashing as always, for a lunch date with my boss, only to find they’d gotten their wires crossed, and he was nowhere to be found. She looked at me consideringly. “I’m hungry,” she announced, in the deep, gravelly voice I can still hear. “Have you ever been to the Automat?” I hadn’t, and over chicken sandwiches and coffee, we talked about our different southern universes during the civil rights era, the virtues of wearing shoes you can run in, and where passion and hard work will lead you. Every time Eve picked up her cup of coffee, it virtually disappeared inside the strongest, most capable-looking hands I had ever seen.
Fast-forward to the year 1999. By then, I’d found a home at Gourmet, and Ruth Reichl was the newly anointed editor-in-chief. All of us were rethinking what it meant to be a food and travel magazine at the end of the 20th century, and we were all on the prowl for writers who looked at the things we cared about in new and interesting ways.
I don’t know what put me in mind of Eve. I own a number of her books, but In China was what I turned to first. There they were, lots of marvelous photos of ordinary people producing food at its most elemental—from milking a cow, planting rice seedlings, and bringing a pig home from market, to prepping duck and hand-pulling noodles. There was a world of sensitivity and nuance in those pictures.
I knew she’d recently published an autobiography, In Retrospect, and was still working at full throttle. I wondered what she had on her plate at the moment, so I wrote her a letter. And she wrote back, and with alacrity too, which is how these things used to get done.
The finished piece, in which Eve described a recent re-acquaintance with Juana, a nine-year-old Cuban girl she had photographed—and almost adopted—40 years previously, was published in April 2000, at the height of the Elián González case. It’s still available on gourmet.com, but I’ve added the scan below, since, mystifyingly, the photograph that lies at the heart of the story isn’t reproduced online.
Plenty of people found Eve’s point of view clear-eyed, refreshing, and compassionate, but some readers begged to differ. “I was disgusted by the pro-Castro article,” began one letter to the editor. “I did not buy Gourmet for leftist political commentary.” Still fuming, the reader went on to say that we should at least have provided the recipe for rice and beans that were mentioned at the end of the story. (This gave me a pang of genuine anguish—why hadn’t I thought of that? But all is not lost: Click here for a recipe from the masterful Maricel Presilla.)
When I read the letter to Eve over the phone, she gave a joyful shout. “That was delicious,” she rasped. “Come see me the next time you’re in London.”
I did, and we lunched, this time at the Connaught. There was lovely smoked salmon, and Dover sole, and I don’t remember what else. We talked about everything under the sun, including trust, and about the huge difference that makes in the relationship between photographer and subject. The photo we published in Gourmet was what Eve called one of her “caught in action” shots, and the openness you see there (not to mention in her many candids of Marilyn Monroe) is in stark contrast to what you get with the paparazzi style of shooting so popular today. We talked about how important excellence is, and how hard work can get you there, and the genius and beauty that lies within ordinary people doing ordinary things. Her hands were still the strongest, most capable-looking hands I’d ever seen.