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Object: Martha Graham - ’Ekstasis’

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Title Martha Graham - ’Ekstasis’
Production Morgan, Barbara (photographer), 1935, United States
Medium summary black and white photograph, gelatin silver print
Materials silver, photographic gelatin, photographic paper
Classification black-and-white prints, gelatin silver prints, black-and-white photographs, works of art
Technique black-and-white photography
Dimensions Image: 406mm (Height) x 341mm (Width)
Support: 505mm (Height) x 404mm (Width)
Credit line Purchased 1984 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds
Registration number O.003320

Barbara Morgan was attending a commemoration for Isadora Duncan, the pioneer of modern dance, when she noticed how few records there were of Duncan’s life. She decided ‘that photographers have an opportunity to be of service’1 in documenting such transient things as dance performances. Morgan was an established modernist painter and printmaker, but after meeting Edward Weston in 1925 and through the influence of her husband, photographer and writer Willard Morgan, became convinced that photography too could be art. With the birth of her second son in 1935 she decided that switching to photography would also allow her more time to raise a family.

Impressed by viewing Martha Graham’s dance, Primitive mysteries, in 1935, and by what she felt were life-affirming dance statements being made by Graham and her peers during the hardships of the Depression, she proposed to Graham that they work together on a book, published in 1941 as Martha Graham: Sixteen dances in photographs.

Despite Morgan’s various declarations of documentary intent, it is clear from her images and other statements that her ultimate aim was to use dance to produce photographic works of art in their own right. Her dance photographs were never fortuitous shots of a performance on stage, but highly collaborative and planned sessions in her studio. She would view rehearsals and performances until she could identify significant moments, the eloquence and completeness of which represented the essence of a dance — its ‘rhythmic vitality’2 and ‘spiritual-emotional energy’,3 as she put it. Where necessary, movements were even reconfigured or condensed for the camera.

Light was as important as gesture, and Morgan’s studio was set up with the relatively new technology of studio flash equipment, which allowed her to freeze action. Her pre-visualisation of an image extended from a particular dance movement right down to how it would be lit. Of this particular photograph from Martha Graham’s 1933 dance Ekstasis, Morgan said that the ‘side and back lighting frees and solidifies the sculptural form’.4 The ‘rhythmical monumentality’5 created by light epitomised her feeling for the dance.

Athol McCredie

This essay appears in Art at Te Papa, (Te Papa Press, 2009)

1. Cited in Curtis L Carter and William C Agee, Barbara Morgan: Prints, drawings, watercolors and photographs, exhibition catalogue, Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Museum of Art and Morgan Morgan, Wisconsin, 1988, p. 18.
2. Barbara Morgan, with an introduction by Peter Bunnell, Barbara Morgan, Morgan Morgan, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, 1972, p. 9.
3. Cited in Curtis L Carter and William C Agee, Barbara Morgan: Prints, drawings, watercolors and photographs, p. 26.
4. Barbara Morgan, Aperture (monograph), vol. 11, no. 1, 1964, p. 16.
5. Ibid.

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