Barbara Morgan’s “Martha Graham, Letter to the World” photograph
Barbara Morgan’s portraits of Martha Graham captured the essence of that choreographer’s art. Mrs. Morgan was best known for her photographs of American modern dancers, among them Graham, Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey, Pearl Primus, Charles Weidman, Erick Hawkins and Merce Cunningham. Her dance photographs were never intended for publicity or documentation. Instead, she said in a 1980 interview, they were metaphors, created to catch the symbolic image that epitomized the dance or dancer. Like Graham, she believed that gestures could express profound emotional truths. Her photographs revealed, Graham wrote in 1980, “the inner landscape that is a dancer’s world.” She said one of her earliest influences was her father’s suggestion that his 5-year-old daughter “think of everything in the world as dancing atoms.” But she came to photography reluctantly and then, accidentally, to dance.
Her husband, Willard D. Morgan, talked her into trying photography, although she resisted at first, calling it journalism rather than art. Mr. Morgan, whom she married in 1925 and who died in 1967, was a photojournalist who made the Leica camera popular. He was the first photography editor of Life magazine and the first director of the photography division at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. In 1935, soon after Mrs. Morgan had begun to photograph, she saw Graham’s “Primitive Mysteries” and was drawn to its treatment of ritual in the American Southwest. The two women began six years of intense collaboration on a book, “Martha Graham: 16 Dances in Photographs,” which was a centerpiece of both careers and which is considered the quintessential statement on how to look at dance and record it. The two women remained lifelong friends.
After 1945, Mrs. Morgan concentrated on photographing children, trees and plants, and on designing photomontages and light drawings. Her correspondence with William Carlos Williams, Margaret Mead, Joseph Campbell and Edward Weston, an early photographic influence, is considered a rich historical resource. Among Mrs. Morgan’s other books are “Summer’s Children,” “Barbara Morgan” and “Barbara Morgan Photomontage,” all published by Morgan & Morgan of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. Her photographs were exhibited in solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution and other museums and galleries in the United States and Europe.