February 10–July 15, 2018
Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art
Anastasia James, Curator
Barbara Morgan (1900-1992) was an American photographer best known for her photographs of the modern dance movement from the 1930s and 1940s that display a physical and psychological energy in their evocative richness. Born in Buffalo, Kansas in 1900, Morgan grew up in Southern California. From 1919-1923 she attended the University of California at Los Angeles where she received formal art training based on Arthur Wesley Dow’s principles of art “synthesis,” a method that emphasized that art should be created by elements of composition, like line, mass, and color. In 1925, she joined the faculty and was known as an outspoken advocate for modern art during a time period when her colleagues were more traditionally oriented. During this period Morgan primarily worked in the mediums of drawing, printmaking, painting, and watercolor. She first began to experiment with photography as the result of her marriage to Willard D. Morgan, a writer who illustrated his articles with his own photographs. In 1931, in response to Willard’s illustrated articles, E. Leitz Inc. offered him a job publicizing their new 35mm camera and the couple moved to New York City where Morgan set up a printmaking studio on 23rd Street. In 1931, she set up a new studio with a darkroom at 10 East 23rd Street and began experimenting with the technical darkroom aspects of photography in 1931. Morgan was an early member of the Photo League in New York, a group whose members included Berenice Abbot, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, Arthur Leipzig, and Lisette Model among many others.
In 1935 Morgan attended a performance of the Martha Graham Dance Company and almost immediately conceived of her 1941 book project Martha Graham; Sixteen Dances in Photographs. She would continue to photograph the company for a decade. In 1945, with sponsorship by the National Gallery and the State Department, she mounted the exhibition La Danza Moderna mounted enlargements exhibited first at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Included in this exhibition are five iconic photographs from this period including images of Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, and Jose Limon. In displaying a mastery of technique, Morgan’s photographs were educational. Displayed in travelling exhibitions, the images introduced people across the world to modern dance, then a relatively unknown art form.
Also featured in this exhibition are works that demonstrate Morgan’s unique contribution to the technique of photomontage. Although photomontage was practiced in Europe as early as the 1930s, at the time when Morgan began to experiment with this method it was still alien to American photography. Strongly influenced by her relationship with Lucia and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the resultant images, four of which are featured here, are imbued with themes of social concern and act as a bridge between her interest in the natural or constructed environment and her interests in the human condition and emotional truth.
Barbara Morgan, Martha Graham – American Document (Trio), 1938, printed ca. 1980, gelatin silver print, gift of Howard & Ellen Greenberg, collection of Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art.
Barbara Morgan, Brainwashed, 1966–1969, printed ca. 1983, gelatin silver print, collection Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz, gift of Howard & Ellen Greenberg, collection of Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art.