The world as seen by legendary photographer Inge Morath
The late playwright Arthur Miller, speaking of his wife Inge Morath, said “She made poetry out of people and their places over half a century.” This month, Prestel Publishing and Magnum Foundation are releasing “Inge Morath, An illustrated biography”, written by Linda Gordon, professor of history at New York University. The author presents Morath traveling across the globe, often as a woman alone, quietly but firmly defying the conventions for what was appropriate for women at the time. Her photographs show her cosmopolitanism, which arose from her love of literature, her fluency in many languages, and her revulsion against Hitler’s Germany, where she spent her teenage years. Her respect for all the world’s cultures, from Spain to Iran to China, made her a kind of visual ethnographer.
One of the first women to join the Magnum collective, Morath was a superb portraitist, particularly drawn to artists, such as painter Saul Steinberg, sculptor Louise Bourgeois, and writer Boris Pasternak. She worked mainly in black-and-white but also used color film exquisitely, even early in her career. Through Magnum assignments to document film sets she met Arthur Miller and their subsequent marriage lasted for forty years. Despite a variety of subject matter, Morath’s work is unified by an intimacy and comfort with the world’s many cultures. Truly a citizen of the world, her images are simultaneously universal and personal. In the following interview, photography author and historian Carole Naggar, director of the Magnum Legacy book series, discusses her oeuvre.
The biography of Inge Morath published by Prestel is extensive, with an important number of images and contact sheets alongside the text. What can you tell about the process of its making?
This has been a long and complex process, working with the Magnum Foundation (Susan Meiselas and especially Kristen Lubben for this volume), the publisher, the writer, Linda Gordon, Tessa Hite, who assisted me in researching at the Beinecke Library where Inge Morath’s archives are kept, and Rebecca Miller, Inge Morath’s daughter who also supplied a number of letters, documents and photographs. I also worked on Inge Morath’s black and white contact sheets at Magnum New York’s office and found several images that had never been published, such as a portrait of Cartier-Bresson during the trip that he took with Inge in Europe in 1953, photographs of Inge’s mother and her twin sister, or an image of the church where her grandparents married, that she photographed when she made a trip to Austria and Eastern Europe in search of her origins, following the course of the Danube river.
Tessa Hite used her research at the Beinecke to write a text on Inge’s archive and an extensive illustrated biography, which together complement Linda Gordon’s text.
The writer, Linda Gordon, who is known for her biography of Dorothea Lange and her book on the return of the KKK, was a very active participant and suggested images that would work with her text. We had numerous in-depth discussions about her text, about Magnum and about photography in general, and she met with a number of witnesses – family, colleagues and friends – to Inge’s life. The managing editor Andrew Lewin also helped with numerous aspects of the book.
Making a book, especially one as complex as that with hundreds of extensive notes, is a team effort. It is a bit like a puzzle, balancing text, photographs and documents and finding a sequence which allows back and forth between the components. Finally, the designer, Greg Wakabayashi, tied the book together with his refined, understated layout that gives equal play to text and images.
How would you qualify Inge Morath photography?
Inge Morath’s photography resists definition. It is fresh in approach, classic in composition and versatile. She is equally at ease with reportage, fashion and portrait and also has a sense of whimsy, as is obvious in her series on Saul Steinberg’s masks or her famous image of a lama in Times Square. Her empathy, and perhaps her difficult past in Nazi Germany, allowed her to communicate with just about anyone, from the street children of Ireland or Rumania or a camp in Gaza to the most famous artists or writers such as Henry Moore, Jean Arp, Louise Bourgeois, Norman Mailer and a score of others. She could blend in any country and situation and was very brave, a world traveler who for instance went to Iran in 1956, a woman alone. She was one of the first photographers to work in color and her color photographs of London, Ireland and Spain, as well as her Iranian desert landscapes, are beautiful.
Where would you put her in the history of the medium?
Morath’s contribution to the history of the medium has been important and largely unrecognized. Even even though a number of books have been published about her (In particular thanks to the efforts of John Jacobs, who was also instrumental in formulating the concept for this series), it is the first time that all aspects of her life and career are presented together in one book.
Together with Eve Arnold, Morath was the first woman to enter Magnum Photos “boys club”. In the early 1950s. She did not define herself as a feminist, but during her life constantly encouraged women photographers. The Inge Morath Award was created in her honor by her colleagues at Magnum Photos and recently a group of women photographers followed her trajectory along the Danube, creating new images of places she had visited.
I think that her most important contribution to the history of the medium is her capacity to create not only striking individual images but in-depth stories, a preoccupation that many contemporary photographers now share. This is what differentiates her from Cartier-Bresson whom she acknowledged as a mentor, and makes her thoroughly modern.
How would you describe the Magnum Legacy series of books? What it the intent with this series?
The Magnum Legacy series is co-published by the Magnum Foundation and Prestel. So far we have published volumes on Eve Arnold, Bruce Davidson and Inge Morath. The idea is not to produce a “classic” photobook with a portfolio of images nor a classic biography, but to tell a story, that of the life behind the pictures. What motivated them? Who influenced them? How do events in their life link to their images? To tell that story we rely heavily on archive. In Inge’s case this archive is especially rich, because she was a gifted writer as well as a photographer, and Tessa Hite and I found a number of letters, diaries, fragments of autobiographies, as well as family pictures, contact sheets, passports, press cards…Inge Morath did not censor her life and was very open about her relationships. She spoke eight languages. Before she went to a country such as Russia or China for instance, she immersed herself in that country’s culture, history and language: We found her exercise notebooks in Chinese, she learnt Russian with a tutor….
Could you tell us about forthcoming publications?
For now, we are planning on a volume on Josef Koudelka, with a text by Melissa Harris, who has been working on her text for the last two years. The publication is planned for 2020.