Observations: Pioneer lenswoman takes the focus at last
Friday 29 January 2010
As the protégée of Henri Cartier Bresson and the wife of Arthur Miller, Inge Morath was eclipsed by two great men. Austrian by birth, she became a photographer, and in 1955 was the first woman to join the Magnum photo agency.
There Cartier Bresson's influence on her photography was, no doubt, unavoidable, as she was his assistant from 1953-54. Colour photography was then considered vulgar and the logic of Cartier Bresson's "decisive moment" was that a single image should stand alone, rather than be part of a story. Morath broke these rules, quietly, and it is only now that her previously unpublished work is coming to light in two new books: Iran and First Colour.
She photographed Iran in 1956, the year that the current President Ahmadinejad was born, when the Shah had been reinstalled by a CIA coup and BP was in Abadan. Morath produced a dense body of work that weaves a narrative through the streets of Tehran to Zoroastrian rituals and colonial country clubs, creating a complex story that is the antithesis of the "decisive moment".
At a time when Magnum believed in the objectivity of documentary photography, Morath made intimate photographs in which she engaged with her subjects. She photographed a Zoroastrian family in Chum. The women sit on the ground, their faces weathered, and they smile directly at the lens.
Morath's daughter, the film director and novelist Rebecca Miller, remembers how her mother spoke about this trip: "She slept in temples, I think. She thought she would be safe there. A woman travelling alone in Iran in the Fifties was a rare thing. Yet you can see how people let her inside their lives, trusting her."
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