Remembering Inge Morath
A new biography of the pioneering photographer Inge Morath should be especially welcome in Connecticut, where she lived for 40 years while pursuing her globe-trotting, celebrity-saturated career.
Written by the prize-winning historian Linda Gordon, lavished with almost 200 photographs and twice that many footnotes, it is the first full account of Morath’s remarkable life.
She was one of the first women to join Magnum, the photography cooperative founded in Paris after World War II by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, her mentor and occasional lover.
Austrian-born herself, Morath survived the Allied bombing of the Berlin factory where she was trapped as a forced laborer and then a 450-mile trek on foot back home. Originally a journalist working in tandem with male photographers, she had to ask how to load film when she took her first photograph for Magnum.
Multi-lingual early, she eventually would become conversant in eight languages and travel to nearly every continent. One of her most famous images, from 1957, is of a llama taking a cab in Times Square. Her first solo assignment from Magnum, in 1952, was to photograph the set of a John Huston film. It led to similar assignments, including the one most fateful for her.
In 1960, Morath was asked to photograph the making of Huston’s “The Misfits” in Nevada. It starred Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, but also on the set was Monroe’s husband, the playwright Arthur Miller, who had done the screenplay. Their marriage was already so wrecked Morath couldn’t get a photograph of them together. They soon separated. By 1962 Morath and Miller were married, the parents of a daughter, Rebecca, and living in the house in Roxbury, Conn., Miller had bought with Monroe.
It would be Morath’s home until her death from cancer in 2002 at age 78. Miller, who was eight years older and outlived her by three years, paid tribute in an obituary by saying, “She made poetry out of people and their places for over half a century.”
Gordon writes that Morath was ready and willing to embrace domesticity and to play hostess to Miller’s circle of literary friends. Among their neighbors at one time or another were William Styron, Stephen Sondheim, Alexander Calder and Dustin Hoffman.
Morath would take portraits of many of them during her long career. But Gordon believes her close association with Miller and other famous people obscured her own importance.
“Unfortunately, it is true,” Gordon says in an interview, “As I mentioned to people that I was working on this (book), many of them did not recognize her name, or they vaguely remembered she had been married to Arthur Miller.
“She was her own person. Her photography and philosophy and subject matter could not be more different than Miller’s. Miller was a very political playwright. By contrast, Inge was resolutely not political … I believe that inclination was a response to the extraordinary trauma she experienced during the war. She did not want ever to photograph suffering or injustice.”
Morath’s war trauma was familial as well as physical. Her Austrian parents supported the Nazi regime. Yet one of the most dramatic passages in Gordon’s biography describes Morath’s desperate trek back home in April 1945. She jumped trains, ducked strafing Spitfires, and at one point stood on a bridge contemplating suicide. A one-legged soldier pulled her back.
In Gordon, Morath has gotten a biographer with a platinum pedigree. N
The Lange book is what attracted the attention of the Magnum Foundation. Gordon says she agreed to undertake the project because she thought Morath deserved to be known in her own right and because her life intersected with so many important events and people. A major resource for her was the Morath archive contained in 740 boxes at Yale’s Beinecke library.
“The early parts of her life took me especially by surprise,” Gordon says. “The transformation from that kind of (Nazi-imbued) childhood to Magnum, which was founded by anti-fascist Jews, and then marrying an American Brooklyn Jew, and then there was the absolutely extraordinary drama of the war itself.
“I came to understand she had a special character, which is that she was very tough. She was a survivor. She was brave. She was adventurous. She could put up with uncomfortable situations.”
Morath did not go into war zones, as women photographers do now. But she sometimes worked alone under difficult conditions as she did on long shoots in South Africa in 1955 and Iran in 1956.
Gordon says Morath and Dorothea Lange had different styles, but shared a devotion to photography that kept them active up to their deaths and also a dedication to research.
“They believed the more you understood about the people and subject you were photographing, the more revealing the photo would be,” Gordon says.
“She (Morath) was a visual ethnographer … Her style was reserved, respectful to her subjects whether they were well known artists she met through Miller or whether they were nomadic peasants in Iran.”
Gordon writes that Morath, like other women of her time, may have regarded her husband’s work as more important than her own. But neither doubted her toughness.
When Miller first saw Morath on the set of “The Misfits,” she and Huston were laughing about an incident of true derring-do that occurred on the set of his previous movie, a western. During a break, the star Audie Murphy fell out of a boat in the middle of a lake. Seeing him flailing, Morath stripped to her underwear, swam half a mile to reach him, then towed him to safety as he clung to her bra strap.
“Annoyed at the men who had stood by a did nothing, she called them all bastards, or so Arthur Miller remembered her telling him,” Gordon writes. “So the playwright may have pegged her as somewhat extraordinary from the outset.”
The full title of Gordon’s book is “Inge Morath: an Illustrated Biography.” It is co-published by the Magnum Foundation and Prestel, a European press known for its high quality work.
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.