Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Imaging the Dance: Barbara Morgan Revisited

Totem Ancestor (1942).
A black-and-white photograph of Merce Cunningham depicts the dancer jumping high into the sky, his feet neatly tucked underneath his wiry body. It's a portrait of a body in motion, captured by the celebrated American photographer Barbara Morgan in the blink of an eye. Totem Ancestor, as the 1942 image is called, provides an exciting early glimpse of the dancer who would go on to define modernism in dance as an expression of concentrated clarity: movement as a meditation on the sublime. In this image, Cunningham looks exuberant as he catapults towards imminent greatness. Freed from gravity, he’s a ball of fire exploding in the air. This image of the dance artist who passed away in New York City in 2009 at the age of 90 is in the collection of Toronto’s Corkin Gallery in the Distillery District. I recently got to study it up close during a private viewing arranged for me by veteran art dealer Jane Corkin who has an important collection of historic dance images from the early 20th century. As I sat in a small upstairs room of the Corkin Gallery, one by one, Corkin brought out her dance photographs to show me. The lion's share were by Morgan, a photographer who more than anyone before her or since created an iconography of modern dance that has been widely disseminated around the world. What many people know of modern dance today they know from looking at Morgan's images. She was as much a modern dance pioneer as her subjects.

I had seen many of Morgan's images before, in books mainly. But seeing them in the flesh, as it were, was an exciting experience on many fronts. Morgan’s ability to capture human energy on sensitized paper radiates a certain magnetism, making the dance, as she first saw it, come alive again, almost 80 years after her images were first made. They are different from the photographs taken by Morgan's contemporary, Joseph Platt Lynes, who photographed George Balanchine and other founding members of Lincoln Kirstein’s American Ballet (later the New York City Ballet) starting in 1935. His work, also in Corkin's collection, is documentary in nature; Morgan's photographs are more their own works of art. Her 1944 image modern dance pioneer José Limón, performing his Mexican Suite, which Corkin shows me, approaches sculpture. The Mexican-born dancer and choreographer is shirtless as he leans backwards on the floor, balancing his weight on his elbows, and arching his chest upwards, head thrown back. He looks an Aztec carving. Another image, this one of a mixed male and female ensemble performing Charles Weidman’s nearly forgotten 1938 dance, Lynchtown, a work based on a lynching in Omaha in the early 1900s, is frieze-like in its deposition of figures streaming across an illuminated background, their legs bent under them, their hands behind their backs as they fly forward en masse. With her 4-by-5 inch Speed Graphic folding camera, Morgan grabs hold of the dancers’ thrust and lift, their pivot and twirl, their stillness and forward motion to create an image of dance that goes beyond the theatre. That, she said, was always her aim: "Primarily, I am after that instant of combustion, when all the energies of the spirit are wonderfully coordinated with the action of the body."

Someone once called Morgan a combination of artist and lab technician who used every technique in her photographer's arsenal to capture what she called the spirit of the dance within a palpable flesh-and-blood portrait: strobe lighting, double exposure, and time-lapsed photography. She knew Harold Edgerton who had developed stop-action photography in the 1920s using strobes to capture fleeting moments of movement under blasts of light. Morgan preferred artificial light over natural for this reason. She could manipulate man-made light to create the effects she wants. She often experimented with lighting effects in her work, creating montages in which light patterns appear to illuminate the life force she discerned in the dance. Corkin has an example of the latter also in her collection. Spring on Madison Square dates from 1938 and is a view out the window of Morgan's studio on 23rd St., enlivened by snaking lines of over exposed light that appear to radiate from a giant image of a male dancer superimposed on the background. People, unaware of Morgan's penetrating gaze, trudge through a snow scene as the dancer hovers over them like some kind of Appolonian deity, promising them the return of the sun.

Barbara Morgan's Spring on Madison Square (1938).

Born in Buffalo, Kansas, on July 8, 1900, and initially trained as a painter, Morgan came to photography relatively late in life, following the birth of her two children during the Depression. Photography seemed to her at the time an easier way to pursue her artistic practice, which included watercolours, drawings, prints and and wood cuts. Her husband, Willard Morgan, was an early curator of photography and among the first to introduce the German-made Leica to America. He kept a 35mm Leica tied round his neck, ready to shoot an image when it spontaneously appeared to him. Morgan at first turned her nose up at her husband's métier. She thought photography was akin to stealing. She wanted to create not take what was already there. But then a chance encounter with Martha Graham at a 1935 dinner party changed her mind. Considered one of the mothers of modern dance, and influenced by modernists who had come before her, chiefly Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, dancer-choreographers whose combined Denishawn school in Los Angeles drew inspiration from Oriental philosophy, ethic and Native American folk dance traditions and Dalcroze eurythmics, Graham forged a new modern language that stripped away superfluities to make room for the intensity of a distilled artistic expression. It has since become the tongue used by modern dancers around he world. When Graham first met Morgan, she was then experimenting with creating her own style, and could see that she and Morgan shared a similar commitment to uncovering truth in their respective art forms. She agreed to let Morgan photograph her working. What followed was a unique collaborative relationship that produced some of the most memorable images of modern dance, both then and now.

To create them, Morgan studied Graham intently in rehearsal, memorizing her choreography until she knew exactly when to click the shutter on what she discerned to be the essence of the dance. The best of these sessions she collated into a 1941 book, Martha Graham: 16 Dances in Photographs, whose cover image, entitled Kick, shows Graham performing Letter to the World, her 1940 homage to American poet, Emily Dickinson. The great dancer is bent low with flat back and with one arm bent, hand touching her forehead. The sweeping energy of her lunging movement is ensnared by the billowing folds of her full-dress costume arcing around her supplicating body to create a vortex in which the dancer’s outpouring of emotion ebbs and flows. The effect was hard to capture. Graham often described her sessions with Morgan as torture, complaining she kept driving her to repeat a movement until Morgan felt Graham had got it right. Or right enough for her camera. But the bother was worth it as Graham, who died in 1991 at the age of 96, said herself in a 1980 interview: “It is rare that even an inspired photographer possesses the demonic eye which can capture the instant of dance and transform it into timeless gesture. In Barbara Morgan I found that person. In looking at these photographs today, I feel, as I felt when I first saw them, privileged to have been a part of this collaboration. For to me, Barbara Morgan through her art reveals the inner landscape that is a dancer’s world.”

That inner landscape is dark and mysterious as suggested by Morgan's photograph of Graham performing American Provincials, her dance inspired by the Puritans, specifically their complex relationship with God, as interpreted by Nathaniel Hawthorne's American novel, The Scarlet Letter. The work was a solo, and Morgan shot it as a series of three composed images. Corkin has the second image in the series, showing Graham crouched low, knees apart, back straight and her eyes shielded with the back of her upraised hand. She is wearing a full-length dress with a white stripe down the centre, and the fabric stretches tautly across her legs while she is sunk low in parallel second position, crating an opposing line of tension to the vertical stripe. In the photograph, Graham does show her face, which is lifted up towards an invisible source of light. Her emotional state is hard to read. She is keening towards heaven or equally she is shielding herself from the blinding brightness of a stern higher power.

But whatever the interpretation there is no mistaking that Graham is in balance; she is anchored securely to her world by the ineluctable force of her dance. This Morgan eloquently communicates through her photograph. “I’m not a photographer or a painter, but a visually aware human being searching out ways to communicate the intensities of life,” she once said. Intensities that continue to thrill.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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