Barbara Morgan was a photographer who was so influential, she helped to popularize a new form of dance through her photographs of Modern dancers, especially Martha Graham.

At the age of 19, Morgan trained as a painter from 1919 to 1923 at UCLA, going on to teach in its art department from 1925 to 1930 (Grenne). She was inspired to become a photographer after seeing the work and eventually meeting the then-unknown photographer Edward Weston in 1930 (Greene). She moved to New York City just as Martha Graham, a pioneer of Modern Dance, was beginning to establish her importance in the mid-1930s (Greene). After attending one of her performances, Morgan was inspired to photograph Graham and her company. Graham agreed to the project and they arranged to met in her studio (Greene).

Without a doubt, Morgan is best known for her photograph called “Martha Graham: Letter to the World,” or alternatively, “The Kick.”

Kendra Greene wrote the following details about the creation of the photograph: “It was made in 1940 with a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera and required Graham to repeat a single kicking sequence until Morgan decided she had captured the image she wanted. With the lights wired to a single circuit, she then activated them simultaneously, popping each for approximately 1/600th of a second, effectively equaling the time of her shutter speed as well as the rapidity of Graham’s movement. The technique produced the desired likeness of a blurry studio floor and backdrop, lending further prominence to the figure of the dancer. Since it was taken in 1940 the picture has become the most widely published image of Martha Graham.”

Morgan recorded Graham’s strength and captured a sense of impending movement through the dancer’s body position and the flow of the dress. The combination of expression on Graham’s face, the position of the arms, and the lighting add a dramatic effect, which is the intention of Modern dance. Furthermore, the dancer’s body contrasts with the emptiness around it, adding more drama and emotion to the story. This is further exemplified with the contrast of the whiteness of subject against the dark background. Also, as the Photo Idea Index describes, “Flying fabric conveys an expressive sense of action.”

Another important visual detail is the alignment of the horizon with Graham’s body. It adds balance to the photograph by showing a horizontal symmetry. It also helps with the flow of the photograph because the viewer can follow the horizon line starting with the hand at her face and continuing along skirt through the rest of the photograph.

Even though “The Kick” is one of the most famous of Morgan’s photographs of Graham, it is certainly not the only one. Another one of her photographs that employs many of the same techniques but has entirely different meanings for them is “Lamentation.” Again, dramatic lighting and facial expression heighten the emotion of the photograph. With this image, Morgan clearly used a single, high-angle spotlight to distinctly capture the dancer and also add shadow behind and around her. As the Photo Idea Index describes, “Shadows can infuse a photo with all kinds of aesthetic bonus material.”

In addition to the lighting, the single most striking feature is the angles. The disruptive angles throws the flow of the photograph into disarray, but when looking at the facial expression of the dancer, this is clearly the intention of the position. This theme is also evident with the slightly tilted horizon line in the background.

Also, the pull of the fabric adds texture to the photograph. Similarly to the “The Kick,” the color of the costume is contrasted by the background, but there seems to be a different meaning for that in this photograph. In this instance, she is wearing a gray costume with a black and white background. It may represent an internal struggle, like a “gray area” in a “black and white world.”

Next, Morgan’s photograph of Graham called “Satyric Festive Song” is a sharp contrast from the previous two for several reasons. Morgan chose to focus strictly on movement with this photograph because the dancer is the only focal point and is centered. Again, this photograph makes use of the angles of the dancer’s movement, but they are more balanced and asymmetrical. The photograph is balanced because of the constancy of the horizontal lines. The blurred movement of her hair gives the feeling of suspended action and makes it interesting.

Although the lighting is not dramatic like the previous two, Morgan again used the framing of emptiness around Graham to eliminate distractions and keep the focus on the subject. The simplicity of the surroundings is contrasted to the business of the action and costume.

Graham was not Morgan’s only subject. This photograph, called “The Exile,” features Modern dancer, and one of Graham’s students, Anna Sokolow. One of the greatest differences between this photograph and the previous ones Graham is the costume. In this instance, the movement in this photograph is more important than the symbolism of the costume. However, it should be mentioned that the fabric enhances and dramatizes the dancer’s movement. Also, the flow of the skirt is contrasted by the expression of the dancer, whose stern face juxtaposes the beauty of the movement.

For this photograph, Morgan had to have used continuous shooting to record the fast moving subject. In doing so, she stopped time and used the dancer to create a visual sentence about the dance piece. As Photo Idea Index describes, “Connotations of action add notes of reality to certain scenes and help engage a viewer’s attention.”

It is interesting that Morgan matched the point of view of the dancer by being level with her. This allowed her to capture the proper intention of the dancer’s movement. In other words, if this was shot at a higher angle, her legs would not look parallel and her facial expression would not have been properly documented.

As in before, the horizon adds to the flow and adds balance even though the image is asymmetrical. Another reason it is so balanced is because the dancer is perfectly centered. This framing is most appropriate because so much action, emotion, and story is going on with the dancer, other visual elements would make the photograph too busy.

While Morgan may be best known for her photographs of dancers, she has a variety of other works, including this light drawing called “Emanations.” Even though it is not dance, Morgan brilliantly captured movement. This photograph shows interesting shapes and visual texture of moving light. Deba P. Patnaik, writer for the Aperture Foundation, said, “A former painter, Morgan used montage and manipulated imagery to express the visual and kinetic energy of New York City.” The contrast of the larger circular lights with the curvy vertical line is synthesized by the framing. The flow of the light creates the feeling of excitement and activity. The subject is made more vivid by both the places of overexposure and the black background.

In conclusion, a few things about Morgan’s works should be mentioned. First, Morgan spent six years photographing Graham and ultimately complied the work into her book called , “Martha Graham: 16 Dances in Photographs” (Dunning). Also, throughout her career, she photographed 32 dancers and choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman, all of whom are extremely important and influential to Modern Dance, among others (“Women Photographers”). Finally, while it may seem that Morgan may have taken hundreds of photographs to capture a few good images, she said, “Previsualizing is the first essential of dance photography. The ecstatic gesture happens swiftly and is gone; unless the photographer previsions in order to fuse dance action, light and space simultaneously, there can be no significant dance picture” (“Barbara”). Morgan’s documentation of the beginnings of the never-before-seen dance genre elevated both dance and photography to exquisite art forms that deserve to be studied and appreciated.

Works Cited

“Barbara Morgan.” A Gallery for Fine Photography. 1999. <;.

Dunning, Jennifer. “Barbara Morgan, Photographer of Modern Dance, is Dead at 92.” The New York Times. Aug 19, 1992. <;.

Krause, Jim. “Photo Idea Index.” How Books, Cincinnati, Ohio: 2005.

Patnaik, Deba P. “Barbara Morgan: Masters of Photography.” Aperture Foundation. <;.

“Women Photographers.” UCR/California Museum of Photography. 1999. <;.

Photograph Citations



“Satyric Festive Song”

“The Exile”

“The Kick”