Environmental Portraits Teachers: Eve Arnold

‘Environmental portrait’ is probably one of the wordiest of many names given to a seemingly straightforward photographic genre. To me it is precisely ‘taking photos of a person where you find him’, the most commonly practised photography activity in news and photojournalism, documentary, street, travel photography and all other ‘snappy happy’ situations. If you see environmental portrait as a subcategory of portraits, it fits the bill that a person is the dominant subject matter of a photo. However, the person is not (paid to be) posed or staged by the photographer in an artificial space (e.g.. in a studio). Environment portraits are usually taken in a place that represents the subject person’s identity or personality. The photographer’s message is delivered not only via the subject person himself but also the situation he finds himself in.
35mm lenses have the perfect profile for environmental portraits. They are wide enough to cater for both the subject and the surroundings, yet they are not too wide so the viewer’s attention is guided to the subject. The discreet size of a typical 35mm lens means it is easy for the photographer to blend into the environment and get close to the subject person without causing too much distraction. In this series let’s explore the environmental portraits teachers and masters who led the way in this genre and showed us endless possibilities. So sit tight and fasten your seat belt.

Eve Arnold (April 21, 1912 – January 4, 2012)

Hollywood stars are no strangers to portraits, as a matter of fact, they live and breathe glamour shots, fashion and drama portraiture, photojournalism, you name it. Taking photographs of celebrities ‘environmental portrait’ style, however, opens another door for the public to know them more personally. It is the ‘backstage’ access to the celebrities lives, their emotions and life stories. It shows the viewer what happens before and after the ‘glamour shots’ are taken. Arguably this is where ‘reality TVs’ stole the idea from.
Eve Arnold is our environment portrait teacher today. In the year 1960, she made a bold choice of the subject person for her environment portraiture, the greatest pop star of her age: Marilyn Monroe.

Photo #1 – leading lines and layers

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USA. Nevada. Reno. US actress Marilyn MONROE and Montgomery CLIFT behind scenes during the filming of “The Misfits”. 1960. © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

In this masterfully layered shot, The leading lines of the car hood and the trunk draw viewers attention naturally to the subject. Monroe and Clift sit comfortably in the front scene next to a truck. The golden rim lighting around Monroe’s hair and Clift’s shoulder created a sense of drama. Monroe, beautiful as usual, is not afraid to show Eve the more casual side of her without looking at the lens or even paying attention to the photographer at all. The expression on her face was a little bored or tired. It is definitely believable as one can imagine how intense it must be to be a leading actress of a movie. In the background, it is blurry yet still visible that the director and actors are working on another scene. The whole image is busy but not distracting. Monroe’s posture is unusual but visually interesting, and, man, isn’t she stunning!

Photo #2 – patterns, storytelling, environmental elements

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USA. Nevada. FILM : The Misfits. Arthur MILLER gives advice on a shot to US actress Marilyn MONROE, while Clark GABLE talks to John HUSTON (off camera). 1960. © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

The attraction starts with the shadow of window screens casting on the subjects. Monroe was being advised on a shot. The distance between Miller and Monroe was very close, indicating it is a very noisy scene that forces Miller to speak to Monroe’s ear. Miller is in a dominant position with his forward-leaning upper body and his somewhat unique hand position supporting his back. Monroe appeared confident yet receptive. What I find interesting is that Eve did not crop out Clark Gable in the foreground and another man towards the left edge of the image. They do not have any interaction with Monroe, yet I believe they are there to enhance the scene and render the environment. With these characters, especially Gable, it is undeniable that this is a break during a movie shot. All these visual elements add to the story the image tells. I can imagine the same photo with Monroe and Miller in a different scene (e.g. in a private residence or a bar) would carry very different meaning.

Photo #3 – composition, contrast, candid shot

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USA. Nevada. Reno. US actress Marilyn MONROE and Clark GABLE on location during the filming of “The Misfits”. 1960.

© Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

Eve took a bold choice to place Monroe at the far right side of this photo. The whole image is divided into 4 sections by what appears to be wooden planks. The choice of the frame broke the ‘rule of thirds’ composition yet cleverly kept the balance of light and shade right. The wooden planks also blocked what might be a messy background and kept the whole image simple. The artistic choice of a black and white film also works because the white dress of Monroe and the dark planks creates contrast. Gable is a second visual focal point. Although there was no interaction between Monroe and Clark, the practically out-of-frame arm of Monroe made it evident that the placement of the two subjects was deliberate. The posture of Monroe and Clark strongly suggests that this is a candid shot, which draws the viewer into the scene and created a sense of reality.

Simplify your instrument

All three photos were taken with wide angle lenses with approximately 35mm focal length. The techniques of layering, positioning, leading lines, contrast were masterfully executed. The visual elements were clearly laid out so that it does not take any hesitation for viewers to tell the subject from the environment. In Eve’s photo, Monroe was presented as an actress who, just like everyone else, took breaks during movie shots, listened and talked with peers and had her less glamorous moments behind the scene. The environmental portrait makes Monroe real and believable (and no less attractive).

I finish this article with late Eve Arnold’s famous quote:

“If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.”


Would you like to read more about Eve Arnold and her amazing work? If so I recommend adding the following photobooks to your collection:

continue reading about other Environment Portrait masters:

Environmental Portrait Photograph: How to Approach Anyone for Photos

Environmental Portrait Teachers: Henry Cartier-Bresson

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