copyright Willard & Barbara Morgan Archives

Pinch-hitting for Stephanie on this issue’s Before You, we take a look at the work of Barbara Morgan. Morgan’s 4x5 Speed Graphic images provide an intimate look into the subjects that meant the most to her, particularly her interest in Martha Graham and her dance company. Her work will speak for itself, and her legacy and beautiful use of light will long be remembered.

-- Candice C. Cusic
Chicago Tribune staff photographer

As an art major at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1919, Barbara Morgan longed to be a painter. In 1925, she married freelance writer/philosopher Willard Morgan, who introduced her to photography, even talking her into wearing a Leica around her neck so she could “shoot the unexpected.”(Mitchell) Morgan was initially skeptical of photography, “If you just click the shutter, you are stealing reality! I can’t be a thief. I must create.” (Aperture)

After giving birth to her second son in 1935, Barbara realized how painting consumed her. “I lost track of everything else. I knew that I must be a mother first, and therefore I wouldn’t have time to paint.” When Morgan confided her fears to her husband, he encouraged her towards photography, helped her build a darkroom, and took care of their children at night while she worked. (Mitchell)

Morgan saw a performance by choreographer Martha Graham in 1935 and challenged herself to capture Graham’s movements in photographs. “Every photographer has his own methods of personal expression. My way is to allow the unconscious to do a large share of the work. First, I watch rehearsals and performances in complete detachment... without trying to plan pictures. Next I let these impressions “soak in” over as long a period as possible...I like to photograph only when I have had time to digest the subject and assimilate it with all I know and feel.” (Morgan)

“When I became a photographer emotionally and practically, the only way I could feel honest about photographing seriously was to photograph with imagination, rather than recording, for if I merely echoed the obvious, I would lose my creative integrity. Therefore, I began with photomontage, knowing it could only come from creative imagination.

In 1935, after I had accepted my validity as a photographer via photomontage, I still had the urge to be a good mother, for we adored our children and they came first. How could I coordinate all these complexities? I finally developed a three-channel system so I could have multiple concepts in mind simultaneously (like a three-way montage). Channel one was my family- getting meals and taking care of the boys; channel two was my creative work; and channel three was my community responsibility.”(Mitchell)

“I’m not just a ‘Photographer’ or ‘Painter,’ but a visually aware human being searching out ways to communicate the intensities of life.” (Aperture)

Morgan’s 70-year career includes her involvement as a founding member of Aperture and the publication of several photography books including “Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs,” and “Summer’s Children: A Photographic Cycle of Life at Camp.”

“I don’t think too much about old age. I get a kick out of the fact that I was born in 1900, but I don't take age too seriously... I want to work as long as I can. My hope is that photography will contribute to global harmony.”(Mitchell)

Patnaik, Deba P. “Barbara Morgan: Masters of Photography.” Aperture

Morgan, Barbara. Photographing the Dance. New York: Morgan & Lester: Graphic Graflex Photography, 1947.

Mitchell, Margaretta K. Recollections: Ten Women in Photography. New York: Viking Press, 1979.


Special thanks to Lloyd Morgan and the Willard & Barbara Morgan Archives. Please visit the UCR/California Museum of Photography's Barbara Morgan exhibit, part of their Women Photographers series.