- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004


By Eve Arnold

Bloomsbury, $65,

208 pages, illus.


People so greedy that they want it all discover that they are left with no real choices. That’s what the American novelist Charles Frazier (author of “Cold Mountain”) has concluded lately. Hands left clenched in a fist too long only ache to be held. Then what a sobering opportunity, the blank page. For the artist who has too much to say, the mind can also risk going blank.

In this same vein, a breed of photographer we’ll call the Serial Shooter takes the deadliest of dead ends in the fine art world. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, Ed Ruscha could not stop after photographing 98 gas stations or 5,279 feet of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Trash cans and street curbs can only say so much, but Ruscha insisted that we the viewers do all the hard part, studying each and every tedious and mundane part of his obsessive collecting.

Even nowadays, the New York Times Magazine has taken to publishing bank-camera angles of public events, cramming hundreds of tiny little faces onto a double-page spread, expecting sophisticated, postmodern readers to take pleasure in all that blandness. The photographers and editors alike seem to be saying, “We give up. Forget about a story here; make up your own minds.”

Thank goodness for an artist such as Eve Arnold and her latest volume of pictures, “Handbook (with Footnotes).” The book’s title is just her way of toying with stuffy academic and publishing traditions. She thumbs her nose at the habitual awe for portraiture. She does not rely on the face to show us who her subjects are.

Without a twinkle in the eye or the slightest scowl, in fact with just a couple of facial expressions appearing anywhere among the 198 chosen here, the pictures in “Handbook” manage enormous, revealing humanity. Miss Arnold knows what hands can say, not merely what hands accomplish, but prove how things must have felt. The little and big things that hands do become the cement of memory. Feet proved irresistable two dozen times.

Miss Arnold also hunts and gathers endlessly, but she gives her viewers an honest intention and a point of view that has something to say. During a 50-year journey from Afghanistan to Tibet, from England to South Africa, across Russia, India and China, this pioneer carried the prestige of the Magnum Photo Agency which she had joined back in 1955. Some 40 years later, the International Center of Photography elected her to their most prestigious honor, that of Master Photographer.

For connoisseurs of people watching, it can be enough when a portfolio holds a few, maybe a handful of memorable scenes. In this lovely life’s collection, there are at least a couple dozen. She even includes the hands of famous people like John Huston, Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe and Isabella Rossellini, although their hold on celebrity doesn’t matter one bit here.

One mother can’t resist — nor should she — playing with the grasping miniature fingers of her newborn; while a generation later, a nursing baby reaches toward it’s mother’s smile. We see the fraying socks on a toddler in New Mexico, so worn out that they can no longer be handed down.

A young athlete cradles his head in defeat. An artist in Yugoslavia gingerly holds a cross made of razorblades. A criminal suspect in Detroit twiddles his fingers with the nonchalance of someone used to the sensation of handcuffs. The beautician strokes away the tension from between her client’s eyebrows.

The groom cleaves to his bride, tugging her gently closer. An actor steadies the mirror he has been offered, the better to check his face. A deaf-mute girl laughs by using her hands across her sister’s face. Swollen hands try to flip to the right page in a Bible. A mother smoothes her sleeping child’s forehead, perhaps to feel for fever. Fingers can still span an octave on the piano, although the skin like puckered tissue will never be taut again.

Her pictures force us to wonder just how does the straw feel, the homespun wool, tonight’s rice, the dirt that may never have been cleaned from beneath those fingernails? How hard was that sand in the Bahamas? What’s missing? Only that Eve Arnold should live twice as long. Miss Arnold says that over the years she has found herself about to leave but wanting, lingering for another chance to get it right, as all photographers do.

But in Miss Arnold’s case, such parting shots are not grabbed for safety’s sake. “I find myself saying ‘Just one more’ and meaning a picture of the subject’s hands, or, sometimes, feet….Most [such pictures] have never been published, and I promised myself that one day they would be.”

Beautifully printed, and sheltered in its slipcase, it makes an entirely successful and satisfying book. It is a theme deserving of an even more thorough, thoughtful, deliberate, ordered meditation. There are more photographs of hands waiting for her to find, hesitant hands, sure hands, hands in the midst of decision. For starters, she could go looking for the teacher’s patient, guiding hands, the mountain climber’s frostbitten hands, the scientist with robotic hands, the Air Force officer with hands poised by the button….

J. Ross Baughman is director of photography at The Washington Times.

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