One day, among the orange trees of the farm where she lived with her family in California, Barbara Morgan saw the light of the photograph. His father, a scientist, told him that everything in life was made up of “moving atoms.” Perhaps the girl did not understand it very well, but when years later she began to take photographs, her goal was always to find the energy of movement, of rhythm. A collection room of the Museum of Romanticism, in Madrid, houses those delicate and beautiful images, especially those he took of contemporary dance, from this American author, born in 1900 in Buffalo (Kansas) and died in Sleepy Hollow (New York), in 1992. There are only about 30, from the Astudillo Collection, but their quality allows us to get a good idea of who Morgan was, the creator of the Contractions and extensions of the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham will pass to posterity thanks to their black and white.
The exhibition Bárbara Morgan: gesture, dance and expressionism, until September 26, within the PHotoEspaña program, it opens with its beginnings, as a mainstay of the avant-garde in the United States, influenced by the arrival in America of fled Nazism, such as László Moholy-Nagy or Man Ray. Morgan creates photomontages because he believes that this way he can better show complex reality than with an image that documents it. From that time is Hearst about people (1939), a visual metaphor in which the magnate’s face appears on the banner of a demonstration, a criticism of the mass media concentration. From 1972 is City Sound, image in which a skyscraper appears on a large ear; it was his protest at the unpleasant noise that surrounds life in the big city.
Before proclaiming these commitments, Morgan had studied Fine Arts at the University of Los Angeles (UCLA), where she later became a professor. Her vocation was painting, but in 1925 she married Willard Morgan, writer, photographer and Leica representative in the US, who convinced her to give up her brushes for the camera. Willard also suggested that “photography was more compatible than painting for the care of her two children,” as its curator, Pía Ogea, explained in the presentation of the exhibition. So she sacrificed hours of sleep in order to develop her photos. She had to be a mother, wife, artist, and activist.
In the 1930s, the family moved to New York, where the Morgans were integrated into the intelligentsia, which made it possible for Barbara to publicize her work and exhibit in museums. “In my work, be it abstract or realistic, what cannot be lacking is the vital rhythm,” he insisted. “It doesn’t matter if it’s dance, photomontage, people or nature. The energy always has to be present ”, he said as a key principle of his work.
However, it was the meeting with Martha Graham – after a performance he appeared in her dressing room to meet her – that changed the trajectory of both. “She humbly asked him to photograph her because her dance style reminded him of the ceremonial dances of the Indian tribes, which Morgan had seen on trips with her husband through the American Southwest,” said Ogea. Graham confessed that she thought the same thing, that her art on stage came from there, so she agreed. That communion created Morgan’s best-known photograph, Letter to the world (kick), from 1940, which Warhol reinterpreted years later. In it, the dancer, with a lamenting gesture, leans on one leg while the other looks for the sky. Ogea puts it in context: “They came from the interwar period, it is a gesture of rage, of proclaiming that culture is there to save us from barbarism.” Another fruit of their work and friendship were the images, with turns, crawls and falls, of Deep Song (Cante jondo), from 1937, a choreographic piece by Graham inspired by the book Cante jondo poem, by García Lorca, and in the disasters of the Civil War.
Of her work on dance – she also portrayed dancers such as Merce Cunningham and José Limón in the privacy of her studio – Morgan wrote that it had been her responsibility to “capture and communicate the constant flow of joys and sorrows, the conflicts and certainties that she experiences. modern man ”. “I have tried to reproduce the relationship between light, time, movement, space and spirit to reflect the essence of dance.”
Morgan was already a recognized artist. She was one of the first photographers to whom MoMA dedicated a solo exhibition in 1945. In 1952 she was co-founder of the photography magazine Aperture, Named for the aperture of a camera’s diaphragm, alongside, among others, Minor White, Dorothea Lange, and Ansel Adams. And her legacy is also being the forerunner of something that today we see as almost natural in photography, and that the curator points out: “She produced photobooks that she herself made up”.
Bárbara Morgan: gesture, dance and expressionism, until September 26, within the PHotoEspaña program, at the Museum of Romanticism in Madrid.