December 19, 1937

By Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

On this date, Robert Fraser photographed Martha Graham and her Dance Group in a live performance at the Guild Theatre in New York City. Frontier, Celebration, Immediate Tragedy, Chronicle, & the premiere of Deep Song were on the program.

Robert FraserMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Robert Fraser (1912-1998)

Photography was Fraser’s lifelong passion. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in physics and mathematics, he began a career as a newspaper photographer for the Minneapolis Star. During his two years at the Star, his assignments included photographing American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. Moving to New York, Fraser settled in Greenwich Village, where he photographed the people and places of the area and associated with many other photographers, including Edward Steichen and Willard Van Dyke. 

Nelle FisherMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

While living in the Village, Fraser also met Nelle Fisher, a young dancer who had just been offered a place with the Martha Graham Dance Company. With a newfound love for dance, he attended and photographed performances by Martha Graham, Humphrey-Weidman, Ballet Russe, and Uday Shan-Kar and his Hindu Ballet. Nelle Fisher danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1937-1940.

Guild Theatre Program for Martha Graham and Dance Group (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

 

As a guest of Nelle Fisher, Fraser attended a performance of Martha Graham and her Dance Group on Sunday, December 19, 1937 at the Guild Theatre in New York City. He was seated front row center at the theater, a perfect vantage point for photographing a live performance. That evening, Fraser took 170 photographs of Martha Graham and her company of dancers that included May O'Donnell, Sophie Maslow, Jane Dudley, Anna Sokolow, Ethel Butler and Gertrude Shurr. The program included the now lost solo “Immediate Tragedy” as well as the original five sections of Graham's masterpiece, “Chronicle”.

"Deep South" Film Roll (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Buried Treasure

Ten years ago, while sorting through old boxes, Fraser's son Doug came across a plethora of badly damaged negatives that included the photographs of Graham's 1937 concert. After consulting with a colleague in the dance department at Dartmouth College, Fraser realized the magnitude of his discovery. Doug, an engineer and photographer in his own right, spent hundreds of hours meticulously restoring his father's work. In addition to Martha Graham's concert, photographs of the Ballet Russes and the Humphrey-Weidman Company in performance have also been restored by Doug. In these never-before seen images of Martha Graham live in performance, Robert Fraser has captured the raw, visceral energy of Graham's physical art-form. The images of Deep Song are perhaps most significant. Fraser's images document the world premiere of that work.

Martha Graham in Frontier (1935)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Frontier (1935)

"'Frontier', subtitled 'American Perspective of the Plains', is a tribute to the vision and independence of the pioneer woman. It portrays her strength and tenderness, her determination and jubilation at overcoming the hazards of a new land, as well as her love of the land. The movement, completely one with the decor's widening horizon, evokes the feeling of distance, loneliness, and courage." - Martha Graham (early program notes)

Martha Graham in Frontier (1935), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Martha Graham in Frontier (1935), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Martha Graham in Frontier (1935), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Martha Graham in Frontier (1935), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Celebration (1934) (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Celebration (1934)

'Dance of Rejoicing'. This is not the celebration of any one event; it objectifies that inner excitement we feel in the face of all great events.

Celebration (1934), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Celebration (1934), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Celebration (1934), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Celebration (1934), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Celebration (1934), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Celebration (1934), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Martha Graham in Deep Song (1937) (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Deep Song (1937)

"'Deep Song' is not meant to portray the anguish of any one people in any one place but is a recognition of the plight of enslaved people the world over." – Martha Graham (program notes, 1940)

Martha Graham in Deep Song (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Martha Graham in Deep Song (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Martha Graham in Deep Song (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Martha Graham in Deep Song (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Martha Graham in Deep Song (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Martha Graham in Deep Song (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Martha Graham in Deep Song (1937), 1937-12-19, From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Immediate Tragedy (1937) (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Immediate Tragedy (1937)

"Dance of Dedication"

Immediate Tragedy (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Immediate Tragedy (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Immediate Tragedy (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Immediate Tragedy (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Immediate Tragedy (1937), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Prelude to Action" from Chronicle (1936) (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Chronicle (1936)

Within its five dances, Martha Graham's "Chronicle" does not attempt to show the actualities of war; rather does it, by evoking war's images, set forth the fateful prelude to war, portray the devastation of spirit left in its wake, and suggest an answer.  

"Spectre – 1914" from Chronicle (1936) (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Part One: Dances before Catastrophe 

a. Spectre – 1914 (Drums – Red Shroud – Lament)

"Spectre – 1914" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Spectre – 1914" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Spectre – 1914" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Spectre – 1914" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Spectre – 1914" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Spectre – 1914" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Spectre – 1914" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Spectre – 1914" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Masque" from Chronicle (1936) (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Part One: Dances before Catastrophe 

b. Masque (Idolatry of Tradition)

"Masque" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Masque" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Masque" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Masque" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Masque" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Masque" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Steps in the Street" from Chronicle (1936) (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Part Two: Dances after Catastrophe 

a. Steps in the Street (Devastation – Homelessness – Exile) 

"Steps in the Street" from Chronicle (1936)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

"Tragic Holiday" from Chronicle (1936) (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Part Two: Dances after Catastrophe 

b. Tragic Holiday – In Memoriam

"Tragic Holiday" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Tragic Holiday" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Tragic Holiday" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Tragic Holiday" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Tragic Holiday" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Tragic Holiday" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Prelude to Action" from Chronicle (1936) (1937-12-19)Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Part Three: Prelude to Action

Unity – Pledge to the Future

"Prelude to Action" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Prelude to Action" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Prelude to Action" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Prelude to Action" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Prelude to Action" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Prelude to Action" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Prelude to Action" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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"Prelude to Action" from Chronicle (1936), From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Letter to Family December 20,1937, 1937-12-20, From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Letter to Family February 6,1938, 1938-02-06, From the collection of: Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
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Robert FraserMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

One year after he photographed Graham's concert, Robert Fraser, a staff photographer at the National Broadcasting Company, transferred to NBC’s newly organized television engineering department. One of his achievements at NBC was “Kinescope Recording,” the first-ever system for recording television images on film—a technology that enables us to watch re-runs of I Love Lucy and other early shows.

Robert Fraser's Contax Camera lMartha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance

Robert Fraser's Contax l

Fraser's son, Doug, recently restored his father's iconic Contax camera, pictured here. The Contax I was a 35 mm rangefinder camera made between 1932 and 1936. It was among the first hand-held cameras capable of taking professional quality photos. This camera, fitted with a fast, Zeiss Sonnar f 2.0 lens, along with its vertical, focal-plane shutter was what enabled Fraser to acquire the amazing quality of these photographs while using only the available light in the Guild Theatre that evening.

Credits: Story

A humble and self-effacing man, Robert Fraser was never one to broadcast his accomplishments. For this reason, his wonderful photographs, which include those of the Martha Graham Dance Company, were nearly lost forever.

A special thank you to Robert Fraser for his "wonderful sense of the dramatic". Our sincerest gratitude to Doug and Bruce Fraser for the very generous donation of their father's work to the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Curation by Oliver Tobin

Copyright, Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Douglas and Bruce Fraser.

For more information, please visit us at http://marthagraham.org/

Works Cited:

Bird, Dorothy, and Joyce Greenberg. Bird's Eye View: Dancing with Martha Graham and on Broadway. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh, 1997. Print.

Graham, Martha. Blood Memory. New York: Doubleday, 1991. Print.

Mille, Agnes. Martha, The Life and Work of Martha Graham. New York: Random House, 1988. Print.

Morgan, Barbara Brooks. Martha Graham, Sixteen Dances in Photographs. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Morgan & Morgan, 1980. Print.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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