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Barbara Morgan, American, (1900–1992)
Martha Graham, Letter to the World (Swirl - Kick, Frontal View), 1940, printed later
Gelatin silver print on paper
15 1/2 x 14 in. (39.4 x 35.6 cm)

Object Type: Photography
Technique: Photography
Credit Line: Gift made possible by the Sisters of Browning '64 in honor of Mary Weis '64
Accession Number: 2015.7.2

It is not uncommon for the names, Barbara Morgan and Martha Graham, to appear in the same sentence. Morgan is considered the crème de la crème among dance photographers, and Graham is esteemed as a seminal American choreographer of the twentieth century. Morgan, originally a painter who arrived in New York in 1930, was fascinated by the burgeoning Modern Dance that Graham was so instrumental in developing. Morgan and Graham shared a Puritan upbringing—against which they both rebelled—as well as an interest in the rituals of the Southwest Indians. But their deepest connection was their mutual passion for movement and their desire to create art that highlighted the expressive and dynamic power of motion as a vital life force.

Morgan began to photograph Graham’s dances in the mid-1930s...So taken with Graham’s work was Morgan that she produced a book entitled, "Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs," in 1941. There, Morgan expertly managed to freeze moments within Graham’s dances that revealed not only the essence of the dance, but also Graham’s intense personality and forceful movement style.

Letter to the World, based on the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson, premiered in August 1940 at Bennington College, but was not initially well received by audiences or the press. After months of revision, the work was presented in New York, to high acclaim. Letter to the World was lauded as the first dance-drama due to the similarity of its structure to a theatrical play. Martha’s role as the One Who Dances personified the devoted artist caught in the conflict between her desire for love and her love for her art. This character, which illustrated so much that Dickinson and Graham had in common, is thought to be the role that secured Martha’s status as the foremost actor-dancer of her time.

The photograph itself captures the strength and power of Graham’s movement style...Morgan’s genius lies in her ability to capture the dynamism of Graham’s dancing with clarity and refined detail.

Gail Abrams
Professor of Dance

Please note: Photographed in 1940, printed later

signed and numbered on print recto

gelatin silver print

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