Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site


Barbara Morgan's photographs of Martha Graham dancing have, in their own way, the same timeless, startling beauty of the dances themselves. A circle of women , poised and alert, stand erect -- on air. Martha Graham tips her hip, holds out an arm, and her hair rushes behind her, straight up. In another, her white skirt fans in a half-circle, out of which her torso projects like a figurehead.

Ironically, the photos of these snatched moments look as eternal as statues. Their design is so perfect that you don't think of the circle of women landing on the ground after the flash of light, or the hair falling back to the head and the skirt sweeping down to the floor after the click of the shutter. Like the dances, there's something elemental, if not eternal, in her pictures.

About these ads

So it figures that what you see on the page didn't all happen in 1/500th of a second. Barbara Morgan would watch the dance for weeks, in different performances. She would sit through rehearsals.

"Out of 20 minutes I'd see 12 gestures" that she wanted to record, she says. "But until I got the haunting gesture, I didn't do anything. [Then] I'd do the lighting to intensify the meaning."

In her 1941 book, "Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs," which has just been reissued by her family publishing house, Morgan & Morgan, she writes lucidly of the difference between taking the picture at moments of stress and at moments of relaxation. She has taken pictures of leaps which look as if the dancer is resting on a hidden platform because he or she is at the point in the leap where, for a split second, there is no work for the muscles to do. This gives them a look of superiority over the people on the floor, which can be rather humorous. There's a picture from Martha Graham's evocation of Emily Dickinson's poetry, "Letter To The World" where Merce Cunningham seems to have pranced across the room toward Graham at an altitude of six feet, so comfortable does he look midleap.

The photographs, taken mostly with a 4 by 5 Speed Graphic camera, capture the choreography of Graham costumes as well. Barbara Morgan tells of the effect of different shutter speeds on whirling skirts, and the fact that the center of the dancer moves more slowly than the extremities, hems and hair. She tells exposure times to illustrate. It all sounds very deliberate, controlled.

But in person, she says "To me, technique is for the birds, except that you have to have it. . . . My husband always said it was a miracle I ever got a picture, I'm so untechnical."

So forget technique. You already knew the pictures were miracles. Ask about her book of Martha Graham dances and she'll tell you when it all reallym began and what, exactly, went into it.

"I'll probably never know whether I was four or five. But I think it was before kindergarten [about 1904]. On weekends my father would usually -- I don't know whether he would plan ahead or not -- but there was usually some special thing that he would do with me. And in this case, we were outside the house, sitting under a tree, and there were some nice little round pebbles there. Any my father picked up a pebble and said 'Is this moving?'

About these ads


"'Well, it doesn't seem to be moving, but guess what? There's something inside that's moving. There are millions of dancing atoms in there.'

"I said, 'What's an atom?'"

He showed her some illustrations in Scientific American so she could understand that "everything in the world has atoms in it, and they're all just dancing. And then he'd say, 'Now, look at your own finger. Does that seem to be moving? You've got to see they're dancing there, they're dancing here, they're dancing there, they're dancing in the cat, they're dancing in the tree, everywhere they're dancing. There's nothing in this world that doesn't have these dancing atoms in it.'

"So without that, Martha would never have danced for me," she says happily, giving credit where credit is due 76 years later. She is sitting in the house she and her husband built on a hill in Scarsdale, N.Y., in 1941, with windows that go around the corners and not very many right angles.

She wears a dark blue serape, patterned in gay bright colors and geometric, American Indian design, and good stout boots peek out from under her slacks, an expression of the Western upbringing she had on her father's peach ranch in southern California. (She doesn't consider him a rancher. "That was secondary. He was one of the most philosophical and whimsical guys I ever met. He inspired me to be crazy," she recalls with a fond cluckle.)

Even though she tells me about her discoveries with a grandmotherly patience, lowering her voice to a whisper in the exciting parts, explaining things at length and pausing for laughter and Calvado dates, there is still something about her of the precocious little girl whose father, an autodidact, told her "Now, even though I'm your father and I love you, you don't necessarily need to believe me. Just examine everything."

Indeed, it was by taking this advice that she gained an understanding of the universe very early on. In 1905, to be specific. She had asked her father if she could see an atom, and he replied, openmindedly enough, that no one had yetm .

So she got on Nelly, the family horse, and slipped out one day to a favorite oak tree on a favorite hill where, she figured, she would probably see one. It happened to be near a quarry. Just as she settled down to look for an atom, there was an explosion as some gravel was blasted loose. Everything shook.

"There were little grass leaves and they were all trembling. 'Ah, now I've seen an atom!'" she said, her voice whispering with wonder before she broke out laughing. Nelly galloped home with the inquisitive little girl clinging to her for all she was worth. She put Nelly back in the barn and never told anyone.

"But from then on I felt I understood the universe," she said through chuckles.

She understood about taking risks to find things out, and about movement. Her parents, who spent most evenings reading to each other and looking up words in a dictionary, were always willing to explain things to her. One morning just at dawn, a beam of light shone so directly into her window that she was alarmed and woke up her mother, saying, "Some light is trying to get in my window."

"Don't wake anybody," said her mother. "I'll explain what happened later on.At breakfast," and at breakfast they told her what the sun was.

It seems a feeling of understanding the universe ran in the family. Barbara Morgan says she learned more in those days than she did at college. What she learned as a member of the first graduating class of the University of California at Los Angeles is considerable, though, and like everything else, was put to good use later.

She must have been an ideal student, always soaking up ideas and making a game of it. She had become a painter, but from the moment of the quarry explosion, "anything static was for the birds." So instead of drawing a model on a stool, she and some other students took turns dancing while the others drew.

It was the UCLA that she learned the Japanese concept of esoragato, whereby the artist has to first become what he or she is drawing."If you're painting a tiger, you have to become . . . " she pauses, draws gracefully sideways and bares her teeth, her fingers becoming claws. ". . . fierce. You have to take on this emotional change. . . . If you got the concept of painting, say, a tiger or a monk or a mountain or a worm or a tree or whatever, you had to literally breathe in the rhythm of it and feel it in your whole body, your positioning. And you couldn't do anything until you became that, and then you'd take the brush and paint it."

Which was just how Martha Graham was learning dance form Michio Ito, perhaps at the same time. So when Barbara Morgan and Martha Graham were going to have a photo session, they'd both sit on the floor and try to become the images they were going to create, before they started. She would have the vision she wanted to photograph before she took up the camera, and the technique was a way to track down and capture the vision. But "I'll come to that later," she says, because first we have to find out how she started taking pictures.

Her father must have gotten her into the habit of having a good teacher around at all times. When she was at UCLA she used to swap philosophical theories with the director of the university. But her most important teacher -- most important for her fans, anyway, not to mention for Martha Graham -- was the man who coaxed her to trade painting for photography, her husband, the writer and photographer Willard Morgan. He had the hardest job of all.

Before they were married, he didn't have the nerve to ask, but "since we were happily married, he said, 'Why do you only paint? Why don't you photograph?'"

She replied that she'd feel guilty. "I wouldn't be creating anything, I'd just be clicking the shutter and stealing from nature."

"If you'll teach me design, he offered, "I'll teach you photography." She declined his lessons. No matter. He had her design his photographs of houses by their favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, getting her to at least put her head under the black cloth and look through the lens. And in the summers (she was a teacher at UCLA and had three months off) they went to the American Southwest and camped, photographing cliff dwellings with a nifty little device that had just come to America, the Leica camera, for which he wrote the operating manual.

Even if he had never gotten her to take up her own camera (which he did, finally, when their second son was born, by promising to look after the children at night so she could work in the darkroom), their trips to the Indian settlements in the Southwest were probably what helped her the most in photographing Martha Graham. It was there that they watched the ritual dance of the Indians.

"I would call it the greatest dance experience of them all," she still maintains, "Because it goes beyond dance. It was a spiritual unification of human beings with nature."

Coached by friends who had studied the Indians, they tried to "behave so the Indians would not be hateful or fearful."

"At the time the Indians though the camera was the evil eye and would take their spirit from them. We tried not to at least appearm to be evil."

In a car Willard Morgan had equipped with camping supplies, they would camp on the mesa of the Indian settlement. She remembers getting up at 4:30, when the Indian medicine man would come up out of his kiva to the top of one of the adobe buildings and salute the first rays of light.

"He'd chant, and then he'd go back in. And then for another hour or so there was no sound, and we began hearing a dog bark, and a mother yell to her child. We knew that people were getting up and we ate our breakfast. Until we heard enough sounds we never would to up. Then when we felt that it was valid, we'd very gently amble up the circuitous path and when we got there . . . we would see them folding up their blankets and things like that.

"We would never hasten, we would just bow our heads when we saw them. . . . Usually after we'd just been there a little bit and not moving much, they'd say, 'Won't you come?' We would gradually, slowly come to the center [of the settlement] and then we'd hear the drums beat and there was the real beginning. . . . It was like an invitation to come in.

"And people would sit in front of their doors, and the dancers and singers and drum-beaters would to back in the kiva, and then people would get more comfortable and put their dogs here and kids here and so on."

The Morgans watched, with some of the Indians, from the top of an adobe house. A little boy who was going to one of the English-speaking schools came up one time and interpreted for them. The dancing would go on all day, with breaks to eat and talk. After one break, when they had had tortillas and lamb with the little boy's grandmother, and the drums were beating to begin again, a couple of tourists appeared.

"He was a big fat man and he was kind of looking around, dragging his wife," says Mrs. Morgan, miming a goggle- eyed man, head wagging from side to side. "I was so shocked I didn't know what I was doing, and I picked up a little rock there and hurled it at him. It went right by his nose. And the whole place became deathly silent. Nobody moved. He grabbed his wife and ran, and the little kid said 'thank you.'"

Watching dance over the course of a day, she says, "begins to build up a sensitivity not only to the dance itself but to each other. So you begin to feel a comradeship of all the people. You're sharing, and that's why it's so different from going to a theater."

When she went to dance concerts in Los Angeles, she would try to predict the next motif in the dance. But she could never figure out what the Indian dancers would do next.

"By evening, the last ray of light, everybody was hugging each other and sharing the sun and farewell to the sun and embracing each other. It was just incredible . . . ."

Coming down from the settlement to their car, "I suddenly thought, here I am, I'm 11th-generation American and I feel like a child, because this is the most profound sense of belonging to the earth I've ever known. It made me feel that we, the white people, are really like children. We don't have that depth of belonging to the universe. I really mean that."

The experience stayed with her.A few years later, they had moved to New York. It was there that she saw a young, as yet unknown dancer perform, and it struck a similar chord.

That was Martha Graham, and she said to her, "I have a strange feeling and wondered if perhaps you have had any influence from Indian ritual. And she said 'Absolutely. That's one of the greatest experiences of my life.' And then I said, 'I would like to do a book on your dance and she said 'I will work with you.' And we shook hands."

The rest is in the photographs.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.