Visionary Photographer: Barbara Morgan’s Archive Comes Home

Barbara MorganAN INDELIBLE IMAGE of modern dance icon Martha Graham performing Letter to the World ranks among the most famous dance photographs ever taken. It helped bring modern dance to the attention of the American people and established UCLA alumna Barbara Morgan (1900-92) as one who saw, in Graham’s words, “the inner landscape that is a dancer’s world.”

The archives of this visionary photographer have come to UCLA, where Morgan studied art and graduated as part of UCLA’s first graduating class in 1923. She taught design, painting, and printmaking at UCLA and began her career as a painter before embracing photography at the suggestion of her husband, Willard, a photographer, writer, educator, and curator.

“We all feel that this is where both Barbara and Willard would want the collection to go,” said granddaughter Caitlin, speaking on behalf of her family. “Placing it at UCLA feels spiritually, artistically, creatively, intellectually absolutely right.”

These remarkable materials offer insight into Morgan’s artistic development and the concept that inspired all her works: the visual expression of movement and living energy. The archives also trace the development of the Modernist movement in the U.S. through the Morgans’ friendships with other photographers, dancers, architects, artists and authors.

“Barbara Morgan captured the soul of a dance and the dancer like no other,” said UCLA University Librarian Ginny Steel. “We’re grateful to the Morgan family for selecting the UCLA Library and making a partial gift of the collection.” Library donor Norman Powell also contributed generously in support of the acquisition.

“Dance is a tricky form. It leaves a trace in our minds and spirits but not on the wall or on a page. Photographs, notes, diaries – these are the things that will bring generations of choreographers from the past closer to us,” said Lionel Popkin, professor and chair of the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance.

The UCLA Library documents the social, cultural, and political history of Los Angeles through its Collecting Los Angeles initiative and builds circulating and special collections that enhance the teaching, research, and service mission of the campus. “Los Angeles is rich in its connection to modern dance, and the Morgan collection not only amplifies the existing archives here at UCLA,” Popkin continued, “It furthers our ability to connect our students to work created in a time before every camera had a phone.”

Videos of a Martha Graham technique master class for UCLA dance students taught by Graham dancer Denise Vale and of the Morgan archive: