Barbara Morgan grew up on a Southern California peach ranch, and enjoyed the freedom of growing up in a natural environment, with parents of open minds. Her father’s world view had a deep and long-lasting influence on her, as we learn from a 1971 oral history interview conducted by the UCLA Oral History Program (now Center for Oral History Research). His family couldn’t afford to send him to college, she says, but “he had a tremendous mind and he was the most inspiring and challenging brain I’ve ever known.” She continued:
I learned something about atoms and how millions of atoms were in every little thing and everything was dancing and all the atoms were dancing.
The things that we see with our eyes are only a very tiny part of the world…See this pencil? It looks as if nothing’s moving doesn’t it? But you see there are millions of dancing atoms in it. Look at your finger, they’re dancing in there too…
I really think the reason I ultimately ended up, at least with my photography, with dance and photographing dance and making photomontage was that basic experience I had in the countless discussions with my father where his own thinking, which was really a form of—well I hate to use the word because it’s so misued—really cosmic consciousness. He was aware, he was uniting philosophical thought with scientific thought in what we would call today interdisciplinary thinking.
Eastern philosophy was integral to Barbara’s artistic development throughout her life. Her UCLA training was based on Arthur Wesley Dow’s artistic principles. Dow had been a teacher at UCLA who turned to Eastern design principles and was a prominent figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. Another influence while she was a student was the Chinese Six Canons of Painting, which describes “rhythmic vitality” and the essence of life force as the artist's highest goal. When later in her career she embraced photography as her primary medium of expression, these fundamental principles continued to guide her process, with the core concept and purpose of conveying the energy and the essence of her subject her driving force.
Barbara continued to paint throughout her life, but in the early 1930s, working in a home-based studio in New York, photography took the lead. Many factors influenced her exploration of photography, including mentors such as Edward Weston (who she met at UCLA), Ansel Adams, László Moholy-Nagy and her husband, Willard*. Also, with two young children at home, she found she could work at night in the darkroom, free of the need for access to natural light during the day that painting required.
*More on Willard Morgan, who was a pioneer in photographic technology in blog posts coming soon.
When she met Martha Graham in New York, there was an immediate synergy between the artists, and Barbara became immersed in applying the same core concepts--capturing the essence, movement, and the vitality of dance--to her photography. The photographic book, Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs, was conceived and produced over a period of six years (1935-1941). During that time, Barbara studied Graham and her dancers intensely, attending classes, rehearsals and performances to achieve an empathetic understanding of the choreography and movement. It is said that she would then think about a dance for a month before taking a shot. Each of the photographs were taken in her studio rather than in performance, with every gesture, moment in time, and light on the subject having been “pre-visioned” by her in order to recreate essential moments in which a dancer embodied a choreography or rhythm that had crystallized in her mind through intense observation.
As described in the book:
the photographs manage to convey a sense of the continuing motion of the dance and to create eloquently the vision of life the dance symbolized.
Beside Martha Graham and her Company, Barbara Morgan photographed many of the modern dance pioneers. Among them are Doris Humphrey, Erick Hawkins, Pearl Primus, and Valerie Bettis, shown below. Dance critic Joan Acocella has written that Morgan’s iconic 1940 photograph of Martha Graham in Letter to the World (Kick) “may be the most famous photograph ever taken of an American dancer.”
A gallery of Barbara Morgan’s photographs from the UCLA Library Special Collections follows: