Capturing dancers through photography is a challenge because you’re trying to turn physical movement into a static image. There are many photographers who’ve found a way to depict the elegance and energy of dancers in 2D form and one of the best known is Barbara Morgan (1900–1992), who was an American photographer working in New York during the 1930s.
Her studies of famous dancers at the time including; Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman among others were the first images to capture modern dancers in this way and her use of lighting influenced numerous photographers after her.
Born in Kansas, Morgan began her creative career as an artist and only dabbled in photography to help with her husband’s work. Morgan married Willard D Morgan in 1925, a writer who illustrated his articles with his own photographs. She assisted him in photographing the modern architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, as well as with a full documentation of the building of the Lovell House. Willard saw photography as “the real modern art of the 20th century” and in contrast, Morgan, who continued to paint, felt that photography was “useful only as a record”.
In 1930, the couple moved to New York City from the Southwest where Willard was tasked with publicizing the new 35mm camera and Morgan set up her own printmaking studio. The pair had two children, Douglas in 1932 and Lloyd in 1935. Soon Morgan sought out a workable way to be both a mother and an artist and found herself turning to photography. She gravitated towards this medium over painting for a few reasons, one of the main being that photography didn’t require the uninterrupted daylight hours painting did and she would be able to work at night in the darkroom, when her children would be asleep or when Willard would be there to look after the children.
While Morgan had exposed thousands of images, she didn’t consider herself a photographer because she had not completed a cycle of developing and printing her own work. So she set up a new studio with a darkroom at 10 East 23rd Street, overlooking Madison Square, and began experimenting with the technical aspects of photography. Morgan learned processing from Willard and worked on other gaps in her knowledge, particularly with the 4x5 Speed Graphic camera and the Leica.
In 1935, Morgan attended a performance of the young Martha Graham Dance Company. She was overwhelmed by the historical and social importance of the emerging American Modern Dance movement and likened their energy to a “galvanized protest” in dealing with the Depression the nation was in the throes of. She found the experience heartening and said at the time: “Often nearly starving, they never gave up, but forged life affirming dance statements of American society in stress and strain. In this role, their dance reminded me of Indian ceremonial dances which invigorate the tribe in drought and difficulty”.
From that moment through to 1945 Morgan photographed more than 40 established dancers and choreographers, and her book project Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs from 1941 was the first of many bodies of work from this time. The images you can see here combine Morgan's studies of Martha Graham and the series Primitive Mysteries where she captures the company in performance.
Morgan once described the process of photographing the dancers as adopting a different approach from her usual photography: “To epitomize… a dance with camera, stage performances are inadequate because in that situation one can only fortuitously record. For my interpretation it was necessary to redirect, relight and photographically synthesize what I felt to be the core of the total dance”.
Many of the dancers Morgan photographed are now regarded as the pioneers of modern dance and her photographs have become the definitive images of their art. Graham (of the Martha Graham Dance Company), once said of the photographer:
“It is rare that even an inspired photographer possesses the demonic eye which can capture the instant of dance and transform it into timeless gesture. In Barbara Morgan I found that person. In looking at these photographs, I feel, as I felt when I first saw them, privileged to have been a part of this collaboration. For to me, Morgan through her art reveals the inner landscape that is a dancer’s world.”
The power of Morgan’s images lies within their strong composition and thoughtful lighting, where Morgan has placed the focus solely on the dancer and the organic movements they’re making. The result is a series of striking images that feel both theatrical and sculptural in the shapes created.
After dance photography, Morgan continued to experiment with other photographic techniques and put an emphasis on light after her experiences documenting the dancers. She saw “the pervasive, vibratory character of light energy as a partner of the physical and spiritual energy of the dance, and as the prime mover of the photographic process”. In response, she created a series of light drawings using an open shuttered camera in her darkened studio.
Morgan once said of her life and art: “I’m not just a ‘photographer’ or a ‘painter’... but a visually aware human being searching out ways to communicate the intensities of life”. As such the friendships she forged, the creative paths she took, and the work she created was meaningful and full of a palpable energy.
The photographer contributed to the world of photography not just with her own work but also through the celebration of the work of others. In 1952, she co-founded Aperture magazine with Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Nancy and Beaumont Newhall. The magazine is still published quarterly and features photographs by established and emerging photographers, as well as artists experimenting with photo-related media. In 1964, a special issue of the magazine was dedicated to Morgan’s work.
In later life, alongside her photography Morgan resumed work in drawing, watercolor and painting. Morgan died in 1992 at 92 years old while living in Scarsdale, New York. She left behind a legacy of images that she felt were “metaphors created to catch the symbolic image that epitomized the dance or dancer”.