Marlene to Marilyn: Eve Arnold’s Unretouched Women

Eve Arnold’s 1976 monograph, The Unretouched Woman – which featured this candid image of Marilyn during a promotional shoot for The Misfits – is featured on the Magnum Photos blog today. In her introductory essay, Eve reflected on her experiences in a male-dominated industry.

“Twenty-five years ago, when I became a photojournalist, I was looked on as someone apart—a ‘career lady,’ a ‘woman photographer.’ My colleagues were not spoken of in inverted commas; they were not ‘career men’ or ‘men photographers’. I was not happy about it, but realized as have women before me that it was a fundamental part of female survival to play the assigned role. I could not fight against those attitudes. I needed to know more about other women to try to understand what made me acquiesce in this situation.

I am not a radical feminist, because I don’t believe that siege mentality works. But I know something of the problems and the inequities of being a woman, and over the years the women I photographed talked to me about themselves and their lives. Each had her own story to tell – uniquely female but also uniquely human.

Themes recur again and again in my work. 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.

I realize now that through my work these past twenty-five years I have been searching for myself, my time, and the world I live in.”

Eve had her first experience of working with a movie star when she photographed Marlene Dietrich during a recording session, for Esquire, the upmarket men’s magazine. Some time later, Eve met Marilyn at a party given by John Huston at Manhattan’s 21 Club. ‘Marilyn asked – with that mixture of naïveté and self-promotion that was uniquely hers – “If you could do that well with Marlene, can you imagine what you could do with me?”’ Arnold has recalled (see here.)

A picture from Arnold’s session with Marlene is featured in Magnum s blog entry, plus a glimpse of Marilyn on a short break during her day-trip to Bement, Illinois in 1955. Both shots show the considerable labour involved in maintaining a glamorous image. Although Eve would go on to publish a monograph on Marilyn in 1986, her thoughts on Marlene shed light on the challenges faced by women in the public eye.

“Now, about Marlene’s legs—metaphorically, of course. I also grew up with Hollywood movies. Although I was a reluctant host to their imagery, I could not deny their impact on me and on other women. They affected the way we saw ourselves and the way men saw us. The traditional still photograph was an idealized portrait. The subject was posed in the most flattering position, and the features were lit—eyes, lips, teeth, cheekbones, breasts, and in Dietrich’s case, legs—like so many commodities. Wrinkles and blemishes were removed by the retoucher. Everything that life had deposited was penciled out.

When I photographed Marlene recording the songs she had sung to the soldiers during World War II—’Lilli Marlene,’ ‘Miss Otis Regrets,’ etc.—I wanted the working woman, the unretouched woman. The presence of the photographer changes the atmosphere the moment the subject becomes aware of the camera. It is, however, possible to minimize the intrusion. I thought that by working in an area I knew, with people I knew, I might learn how.”