Well Disposed and Trying to See: Inge Morath & Arthur Miller in China
Introduction by John P. Jacob, Inge Morath Foundation, for the exhibition Inge Morath and Arthur Miller: China, University of Michigan Art Museum, Ann Arbor, 2008. Please also see the slideshow.
There is an underlying thread that runs through Inge Morath’s work, which is most clearly articulated in her larger projects. Having witnessed as a young woman the devastation of the Second World War, as an adult Morath experienced its impact over time and across geographical, political, and economic borders. In her photographs of Spain, Russia, and China, for example, made over a span of many years, she documented the evidence of ongoing clashes between tradition and modernity. Rather than photographing conflicts, however, Morath focused on the ways in which, even under the most oppressive circumstances, the human creative spirit finds expression: through social and religious rituals, posturing and costuming, through work, sport, and through dance, music, art, and theater. The thread that runs through Morath’s life–and through her life’s work in photography–is an affirmation that the human spirit endures through such creative self-expression. A linguist first and only later a photographer, Morath wrote that in the years following the Second World War, during which time she moved from Austria to France, then to England and, finally, back to France, she was “without a voice.” Ashamed to use her mother tongue, as Arthur Miller has noted, Morath “found herself in a defensive position in London and Paris.” “I often found myself silently observing rather than talking,” Morath wrote. Thus, in spite of her linguistic training, it was not until she became a photographer that Morath found the means to truly express herself. “It was instantly clear to me that… I finally had found my language,” she wrote of the experience of making her first pictures in 1952. “As I continued to photograph… I knew that I could express the things that I wanted to say by giving them form through my eyes.” Though photography remained the primary means through which Morath continued to express herself, it was but one of many languages in a toolkit to which she continued to add throughout her lifetime. As a photojournalist, Morath’s facility with languages diminished the degree to which she was regarded as an outsider by her subjects, granting her access to places where strangers might not otherwise be welcome. This is a key difference between Morath and those of her contemporaries who preferred to keep an “objective” distance from their subjects. Morath’s pictures are more directly a reflection of her experience of the world than they are neutral documents of it. As former Magnum director Chris Boot has written of Morath’s photographs, “the presentation of relationships takes the place of story structure, and her work is best understood as an ongoing series of observations about the life she made for herself.” It was a life lived on a grand scale. For Morath, who came to Magnum Photos in 1949 as a researcher and joined as a photographer in 1953-’54, the opportunity to travel and work in distant lands was crucial. She toured Europe in the early 1950s with Henri Cartier-Bresson, for whom she worked as an assistant, then traveled alone to Spain in 1954, South Africa in 1955, and the Middle East in 1956. In 1958, she followed the Danube from source to end, then journeyed through Tunisia, the United States, and Mexico in the early 1960s. Morath preferred to work in “countries whose influence extends beyond their borders; ‘mother cultures,” and she dreamed of traveling the Silk Road, from Europe through Persia to China. Continue reading Inge Morath & Arthur Miller in China