Inge Morath

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The Independent Online

Ingeborg Mörath (Inge Morath), photographer: born Graz, Austria 27 May 1923; married first Lionel Birch (marriage dissolved), second 1962 Arthur Miller (one daughter); died New York 30 January 2002.

Inge Morath was one of the most admired photographers of her generation.

A "photojournalist" with the Magnum agency and married from 1962 to the playwright Arthur Miller, Morath photographed artists and writers, landscapes and events, and had an occasional comic, rather Gothic, streak. Her output in various photographic genres was immense. Among the images many find most memorable are those of ordinary people, caught apparently realistically, and always sympathetically. Just as Miller had shown that tragedy is not the preserve of princes, Morath always gave her subjects dignity.

In recent years, exhibitions of her work, both as an individual artist and in association with colleagues in Magnum, have been held in many cities. In Spain, where she had photographed early in her career, it is now realised that she captured aspects of Spanish life otherwise unrecorded, a comment which might also be made of the life of rural Connecticut which she photographed in the 1960s. In 1999 she was awarded the Grand Austrian State Award, the first photographer to be so honoured.

Ingeborg Morath was born in Graz, Austria, in 1923, but her family moved to Germany when she was a child. While a student at the university in Berlin, where she studied romance languages, she was drafted to work in the aircraft factory at Tempelhof, but in the closing stages of the Second World War, with the city in ruins and the Red Army approaching, she escaped during an air-raid and made her way on foot back to Austria.

Fluent in French, Spanish, and Italian, as well as Romanian and English, Morath was a child of the high intellectual and artistic culture of Central Europe, a proud heritage almost destroyed by the Nazis. As a survivor of events in which many of her friends suffered, she regarded her happy upbringing as a special gift.

In immediate post-war Austria, she worked for a time as translator and editor in the Information Services Branch of the American forces in Salzburg and, later, Vienna. Having attended courses in journalism, she provided occasional short plays and articles for illustrated magazines, notably Wiener Illustrierte, and became the Austrian editor of Heute, published in Munich.

It was the heyday of Life, on whose innovative combination of words and images Morath and her friends modelled their work, and she first took up occasional photography because there were no sources of supply. When the group's work came to the attention of Robert Capa, he invited them to join Magnum, the photographers' co-operative he had founded in Paris. As Morath wrote later:

I started to write texts for the photographs sent to the Paris office by the then members of Magnum from all kinds of countries, Cartier-Bresson from the Orient, George Rodgers from Africa, David Seymour from Greece, &c. I started to accompany different photographers on assignments for which I had also done the preparatory research, and later edited their contact sheets. I think it is from this work that I learned the most.

In 1951 she moved to London, having married an English journalist, Lionel Birch, and it was there, having received her professional training with Simon Guttmann, that her first photographic work appeared under the pseudonymn "Egni Tarom". But the marriage was not a success, post-war London seemed stifling and insular, and in 1953 Morath returned to sunny Paris, where she became research assistant to Henri Cartier-Bresson.

By 1955 she was a full member of Magnum, being sent on assignments in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the United States. It was from Cartier-Bresson that she learned to call herself a "photojournalist". As he had advised Capa,

Watch out what label they put on you . . . Just go on doing what you want to do anyway but call yourself a photojournalist, which puts you into direct contact with everything that is going on in the world.

 

Morath first met Arthur Miller in 1960 while she was on assignment from Magnum. The film The Misfits, written by Miller, directed by John Huston and starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, was then being shot in Reno, Nevada, under the eyes of the world's media, who were fascinated by the dramas taking place off the set.

Among the photographs taken by Morath was a sequence of dreamy shots of Monroe in a black ball gown, her eyes half shut, dancing alone in the open air among the fallen leaves, and hugging a tree. (A few years ago, when Morath was in London, we passed a fashionable clothes shop in which one of these myth-making images was being used as an advertisement, and she immediately alerted Magnum to claim the copyright fee.)

After Morath and Miller were married in 1962 (Miller's marriage to Monroe had ended the year before), she made her home in Roxbury, Connecticut, in a house with a garden which she loved, a pond where she swam most days, books everywhere, and a kitchen table where, for nearly 40 years, she offered warm friendship, and wonderful talk. Miller and she co-operated on a number of books, notably In Russia (1969) and Chinese Encounters (1979), records of their expeditions together, in which he supplied the text and she the illustrations. But, while sharing fully in Miller's life in the theatre, she never allowed herself to be patronised or assumed to be the keeper of the diary.

Adventurous, independent, and never encumbered with needless luggage, she travelled extensively for most of her life. Always at ease, and quick to strike up conversations with the people she encountered, she concealed careful planning behind her apparent ingenuousness. Before going to Russia she learned the language, and latterly she carried a little book to keep up her skill in Chinese, another language she had learned as part of her professional preparations.

Aware that the presence of the observer can change the event being photographed, she usually preferred to work with a tiny camera which she kept in her handbag. Even on public occasions when everyone knew who she was and why she was there, she could momentarily make herself, if not quite invisible, at least smaller than she actually was, liable to slip to the ground or appear unexpectedly somewhere else in a room, in order to catch an instant.

Slim and graceful, and ready to fill any odd moment with yoga exercises, Inge Morath was probably happiest when curled up on the floor among her family and her friends. She continued working until illness claimed her.

William St Clair

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