'IMAGINE everything dancing,' Barbara Morgan's father told his six-year-old daughter, as she made her first experiments in painting. During a career in photography which lasted from the Twenties to the Eighties, Morgan became one of the United States' most stylish and idiosyncratic photographers of movement and form.
She was born Barbara Brooks Johnson in Kansas in 1900 and grew up on a fruit farm in southern California. She studied painting and printmaking in Los Angeles in the early Twenties, and was soon exhibiting around the West Coast. But it was in the deserts and canyons of the south-west rather than the Californian salons that she found the landscapes and traditions which were to inform her work in photography over the next five decades. Years later she recollected how 'those hours in Grand Canyon in silent absorption, were awe-inspiring. Our human species seemed negligible within those primordially eroded stratas of red sandstone, sculptured by grinding earth pressures, wind and water . . . Shooting at 1/25th second at f/22 was Time within Timelessness.'
Exhilarating as it was, the Arizona landscape was only the backdrop to her most exciting personal discovery. With her husband, the photographer and historian Willard Morgan, whom she married in 1925, she visited the remote communities of the Pueblo and Navajo Indians and witnessed their ancient and deeply spiritual dance ceremonies. She remembered them as 'some of the most illuminating experiences of my life . . . communal catharsis and the unification of Man and Nature'. Revelatory too were the sharply modern photographs by Edward Weston which she saw in California in 1927. 'Photography', she noted with delight, 'can be Art.'
In 1930 Morgan moved to New York. With the birth of her children, and the restrictions she felt that family life had imposed on her painting career, she turned increasingly to photography. In the evenings, when her children were asleep, she experimented in her dark-room, refining techniques of printing, photomontage and toning. Distanced from the landscapes and people of the south-west, she discovered a new and no less potent Americana on the New York theatre stage. When Morgan first saw the pioneering dancer and choreographer Martha Graham perform Primitive Mysteries in the mid- Thirties, she was immediately impressed by the drama and ritual of contemporary dance.
Photographing Martha Graham, Morgan found a combination of nature and structure which exactly suited her photographic method. When Morgan's first one-woman exhibition, Dance Photographs, opened in New York in 1938, the photographs were astonishing. Dynamic and daring, they set a revolutionary new agenda for theatre photography. As the US was drawn into the Second World War, Morgan's photographs of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Doris Humphrey expressed not only a fascination with modern dance, but also an enduring belief in progressive liberal US values.
While Morgan's dance photographs had extolled the radical culture of progressive New York, much of her work of the late Thirties was sharply critical of US society. She had joined the leftist Photo League, and began to make bleak satires of contemporary life. In 1939, her photomontage Hearst Over the People pictured the press magnate with swirling octopus tentacles gigantic and ominous above a city crowd.
By the Fifties, though Morgan's reputation as a major photographer was assured, the increasing conservatism of the US was inhibiting. Like many of her contemporaries, she abandoned radicalism and turned instead to idealistic photoreportage. In 1955 she produced the exhibition 'Summer's Children', a traditionalist idyll of running, jumping and dancing in the US countryside. 'Her feelings for children were profound,' Cecil Beaton remarked sadly, 'but her pictures of them are trite.' Though she continued to experiment with technique and visualisation throughout the Sixties and Seventies, her photography never fully regained its earlier verve and direction.
Barbara Morgan was an inquisitive photographer who made clear, concise statements about the world around her. Whether she was picturing dancers, trees, a New York skyscraper or a walnut shell, she wanted to know how things worked, how function dictated form, structure inhabited space, how symbol determined style.
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