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Freezing motion with style, beauty

Barbara Morgan exhibit is a study of form

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 30, 2011

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All art is a partnership between form and content, with form always senior partner. A sharecropper family, a shoeshine sign, a set of hand tools are utterly different as content, yet when photographed by Walker Evans all are recognizably an Evans photograph because of the formal properties imbued by his sensibility, approach, and technique.

That said, sometimes the partnership comes closer to parity than others. There are those photographers who for whatever reasons - financial, personal, aesthetic - come to be associated with a particular subject. Ezra Stoller with architecture and Walter Iooss with sports are two examples.

Barbara Morgan, with modern dance, is another. Dance wasn’t all she photographed in her long life (1900-1992), but no one has photographed it better. Her work might be said to reside at the intersection of Stoller’s and Iooss’s: where the placement of volumes in space meets the ordering of energy there. Or so “The Instant of Combustion: Barbara Morgan Dance Photography’’ vividly suggests. The show runs through Oct. 16 at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s University Museum of Contemporary Art.

The show takes its title from a remark of Morgan’s. “Primarily, I am after that instant of combustion when all the energies of the spirit are wonderfully coordinated with the action of the body.’’

Morgan encompassed a country and captured a unique moment in cultural time. Born in Kansas and raised in California, she came to New York in 1930. Then as now, Gotham was the nation’s dance capital. Modern dance there would soon enter a period of particular fecundity. It was fueled by such dancers and choreographers as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, Erick Hawkins, Jose Limon, Pearl Primus, and a very young Merce Cunningham (though was Merce Cunningham ever young?). They’re all present in “The Instant of Combustion.’’

The show consists of 38 black-and-white photographs recently donated to the UMass Dance Program by Morgan’s grandson and his wife. They’re now part of the University Museum’s collection. There are another 70 or so smaller images, studies, taken at the Bennington School of Dance in 1938, and at performances of works by Holm, Humphrey, Louise Kloepper, and Charles Weidman, and others. Casual yet earnest, not unlike the dancers in that respect, these pictures are small, fascinating windows on the kinetic pursuit of utopia.

The dominant figure in this world was Graham. Here she is in her pre-Gorgon days: still girlish, already implacable. She owed her dominance to genius, yes, but also to the fact that she was no more utopian than Elizabeth I was. It was attending a 1935 performance of Graham’s “Primitive Mysteries’’ that inspired Morgan to photograph modern dance.

An image like “Martha Graham, ‘Letter to the World’ (kick),’’ from 1940, lets you see what made Graham Graham. It’s among the great performance images of the 20th century, spectacular in its delicacy, ferocious in its perfection. This is mostly Graham’s doing, of course, and partly the costume designer’s. But it’s also owing to Morgan. The excellence of her work lies in her being as much collaborator as chronicler. The photograph arrests a balance between rapture and control that’s so glorious it seems inevitable. Graham’s kick forms a curve beyond curvature, an arch beyond architecture. This is kinetic sculpture before the term existed.

Morgan understood the power of stillness. She had to. The whole point of dance photography is arresting motion - which is to say arresting time - otherwise it’s just a sequence of blurs. “Doris Humphrey, ‘With Red Fires (Matriarchy)’ ’’ demonstrates how Morgan could communicate the capacity of potential energy to possess force equal to its kinetic counterpart. In it, we see Humphrey gazing at the eternity Graham’s kick reaches.

Dance takes place in space as well as time, and so do dance photographs. The gallery’s low ceilings, beige carpeting, and white walls are glumly functional. But their dull nullity works to complement Morgan’s work. Her images, having provided the best seat in the house, don’t have any distractions to contend with. They jump out at the viewer, exultation front and center. “Pearl Primus, ‘Rock Daniel (2)’ ’’ is one example among many. If the picture were in color, it might hurt to look at it. But it isn’t, so it has another, even more powerful effect. It makes you want to dance, too.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

THE INSTANT OF COMBUSTION: Barbara Morgan Dance Photography At: the University Museum of Contemporary Art, Fine Arts Center, University of Massachusetts,

151 Presidents Drive, Amherst, through Oct. 16. Call 413-545-3670 or go to