Dancing Atoms: Barbara Morgan Photographs

SUArt Galleries

February 5- May 12, 2015


Born in Kansas in 1900, Barbara Morgan (American 1900- 1970) moved with her family to a peach farm in Southern California where she would spend her youth.  Noticing an early inclination towards dance and movement, Morgan’s father suggested that the five-year old “think of everything in the world as dancing atoms.”  Since that young age, Morgan examined the world and her artwork with this scientific curiosity.

Morgan attended UCLA and studied painting and art history, drawn in particular to the Chinese Six Canons of Painting- which focused on rhythmic vitality, reinforcing her father’s early suggestion on how to observe her surroundings.  In 1925, Morgan married Willard D. Morgan, a writer who recognized the importance of photography as a tool for photojournalism.  Her husband was an early proponent of the craft and soon after their marriage swayed Morgan, reluctantly, into exploring photography as an additional creative outlet.

During the 1930s, the couple moved to New York City and started a family.  Morgan set up a photography studio on East 23rd Street, and was introduced to the Martha Graham Dance Company.  Inspiration struck as she observed the movements of the dancers.  She also was impressed by the he courage of a dancer in the 1930s to continue with their craft, one that was financially unstable, in a time of social and financial distress in America.  From the mid-1930s until the 1940s, Morgan photographed the dance company, capturing the beauty and science of their movements for her book project Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs.  This series stands as Morgan’s most famous and well regarded project in her art career.

However, dance was not the only form of energy that Morgan observed throughout her photographic career.  She also was an early proponent of photomontage, an art movement which, at that time, was more prevalent in Europe than America.  Morgan’s interest in the European avant-garde technique was most likely as a result of her friendship with László Moholy-Nagy, who introduced her to the method of using light and objects as props to create light drawings.  Always connected in some way to her dance project, this new exploration in photomontages allowed her to “feel the pervasive, vibratory character of light energy as a partner of the physical and spiritual energy of the dance, and as the prime mover of the photographic process.”

As proven in Morgan’s photographs, the exploration of movement is a theme that countless photographers have been drawn to in the past.  Capturing the beauty and effort of kinetic energy on film takes not only a keen photographic eye, but, more importantly, an understanding of the science that creates such action.   Barbara Morgan was one such photographer.   Her legacy of observing life in relation to “dancing atoms” is forever preserved on film and on paper, providing a glimpse into her world of photography, painting, light and modern dance.


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