Martha Holmes, born in 1923 in Louisville, Kentucky was an American photographer and photojournalist. Holmes was on the staff of LIFE magazine for five years in the 1940s and then worked for three decades as a freelancer for the publication, producing work that remains remarkable for its variety. Legendary LIFE photo editor Bobbi Burrows (who passed away in 2018) once said of Holmes: “She brought intimacy out of her subjects; people felt they were in good hands”.
The opportunities Holmes received were based on her raw talent as a photographer and she started her career at a young age. When the photographer was studying art at the University of Louisville, someone suggested she start working at the Louisville Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times newspapers. She was hired and began as an assistant to a color photographer. Holmes was promoted again soon after to a full-time black-and-white photographer when many of the paper’s male photographers were called to service in World War II.
In September 1944, Holmes moved on to work at LIFE Magazine at just 20 years old, leaving for Washington DC in 1947 to be one of the magazine’s three staff photographers there. She mainly covered the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. This committee was made up of United States House of Representatives, and was put together to investigate the entertainment industry and alleged communist propaganda.
Holmes spent two years in Washington and then moved to New York, where she remained for the rest of her life. In New York, the photographer continued working for LIFE for several more years, even producing two cover images for the magazine. By 1950, Homles was named one of the top 10 female photographers in America, and let’s face it, she was probably in the top 10 of photographers as a whole.
In 1952, Holmes married Arthur Waxman, who worked at NBC in New York. She met him while on assignment for LIFE and the wedding was photographed by the legendary Alfred Eisenstaedt. Their nuptials were supposedly one of the most photographed weddings in years according to newspaper stories at the time.
Even though Holmes had stepped away full-time from LIFE by the early 1950s, she continued to freelance for the publication for decades after and it allowed her to travel to an array of places for various assignments. Her most famous photographs are of big name actors, artists and public figures at the time including Jackson Pollock, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland and Eleanor Roosevelt. Reflecting on her time at LIFE, Holmes said: “One thing LIFE always taught us – they’d say: ‘Film is cheap. Use it. Shoot, shoot, shoot.’”
Holmes’ pictures of Pollock are the most well-known of the artist and were taken in 1949. The photographs accompanied an article that posed the question: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” It went on to cement Pollock’s reputation and captures a unique portrait of the artist at his home and studio with his wife and fellow painter Lee Krasner in Long Island.
It’s said Holmes’ favorite photo she took was in 1949, which was of jazz singer Billy Eckstine surrounded by grinning female fans, one with her head on his chest. Bobbi Burrows said of the photograph: “It was groundbreaking back then in that it was a black man hugging a white woman… There was a discussion about whether we should run it or not. But LIFE’s publisher Henry R Luce said, ‘Run it.’”
As well as LIFE, Holmes’ photographs appeared in numerous magazines including People, Redbook, Coronet and Collier's magazines. Holmes’ work resonated because her portraits of people and places allowed her subjects to shine through and offer a personal insight into them. She made it possible for viewers to find something familiar and relatable in her images, regardless of whether she was capturing athletes, artists, movie stars, animals or even the House un-American Activities Committee. Holmes died at her home in Manhattan, at the age of 83, in September 2006, leaving a legacy of photographs that demonstrate her intuition and creativity as a photographer.