ACCORDING TO Linda Gordon’s biography of Inge Morath, once, when Morath was photographing presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson (I’m guessing in the early 1960s, though the book doesn’t specify), she got down on the floor to find a better, more unusual angle, at which point the other photographers, all male, literally walked all over her.
I suspect that if it had been a man who was on the floor they’d have been just as likely to walk all over him, but there does seem to be something thoroughly symbolic about this event. It’s also telling that, even while being walked on, Morath took some wonderfully intimate photographs of Stevenson.
By then Morath was used to being ignored and sidelined as a photographer. She said she was “mercilessly hit by Speed Graphics and blocked by bigger bodies working together.” Even at the Magnum photo agency for which she worked, on and off, in one capacity or another, from the late 1940s, she felt she received far less support than the male photographers gave to each other.
It says much for Morath’s fortitude and persistence, her ability to shrug off misfortune, that none of this stopped her from becoming a serious and significant photographer. She was accustomed to adversity, and consistently overcame it with a good deal of grace and style. Her whole life had been like that.
No doubt every experience of war is unique, but Inge Morath’s was more singular than most. She was born in 1923, in Graz, Austria (her surname originally had an umlaut), to parents who were both scientists and, according to the biography, “Nazi enthusiasts.” She had a peripatetic childhood and by 1939 the family was living in Berlin. A photograph of Morath from that year shows her wearing a swastika broach at her collar, but for a while her life seems to have been surprisingly unaffected by Nazism and, then, by the war.
Graduating a year early from high school in 1940, she spent a compulsory spell in the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service) — a kind of civilian national service — working first in a kindergarten, then on a farm in East Prussia, where the locals were less than receptive to a girl they saw (reasonably enough) as a privileged Berlin sophisticate. They made her milk cows and clean the pigsties.
She got through it, returned to Berlin, and enrolled in the University to study Romance languages, a course that included a semester in Bucharest. As a student she refused to join the Deutsche Studentenschaft, members of which had quite a taste for book burning. Whether this had any direct consequences is hard to say. She graduated in 1944, apparently without any problems, but possibly that earlier refusal led to her being drafted to work in an aircraft factory at Tempelhof where she labored alongside Ukrainian female prisoners of war. By then the Allies were repeatedly bombing Berlin, often hitting the factory, and when news spread that the Russian army was on its way, Morath managed to escape the city, along with others, and made the 450-mile trek to Salzburg to join members of her family who had already fled there. She saw some appalling sights along the way, bad enough to deter her from ever wanting to be a “war photographer.”
She was in poor health when she arrived in Salzburg: her digestion was wrecked for the rest of her life. On May 4, 1945, the US Army arrived; the war soon ended, though obviously not the privations. But again Morath didn’t do so badly. By 1946, she was working as a translator for the US Information Service.
At this point, she seems to have had no ambitions to be a photographer. If anything, she thought of herself as a writer, and in due course she found work as co-editor of the magazine Der Optimist, then as a reporter and Austrian editor for Heute, a magazine published by the US Information Service. There she worked with the photographer Ernst Haas on a story about Austrian prisoners returning from Russia: he did the pictures, she did the words. When Haas was invited to Paris to meet Robert Capa and other members of the Magnum photo agency, Morath went with him. And when he joined the agency as a full-fledged member, she worked for it too, though as a very poorly paid researcher, editor, and caption writer.
Magnum was (and I suspect still is) very much a boys’ club. If Morath resented this (and how could she not have?), she accepted it as the way things were. And if Magnum wasn’t egalitarian, it definitely sounds like fun. Capa was brilliantly charismatic. He cared about his staff. There were parties, days at the races, a lot of food and drink, some of it very fancy, much of it less so. Capa had a few very rich friends, and many very poor ones. One member of the social group, “an Egyptian painter,” specialized in cooking horse offal. There was also apparently a lot of sex. As Morath herself wrote, “through friendships, and also affairs, one got to know the new cultures and new languages,” though she said she only kissed Capa once.
She still seems to have had no interest in becoming a photographer. That only happened after she’d married a bisexual English journalist named Lionel Birch, whose books included Why They Join the Fascists and The Story of Beer. Perhaps being married to another writer was enough to make her want to give up on the pen, although, to be fair, she did continue to write and publish, generally words that ran alongside her pictures. The couple were on vacation in Venice, she had with her an old Contax camera given to her by her mother, and she took some moody pictures of the city in the rain. It was a life-changing moment. In a later account, she said, “this was the perfect way for me to express what I had within […] it totally satisfied me.” This new passion, unlike the marriage, lasted the rest of her life.
She trained in London for a year with Simon Guttmann, a “merciless” teacher and one-time friend of Walter Benjamin, then she returned to Paris where Magnum gave her an associate membership. For the next 10 years she was a jobbing, working photographer, sometimes apprenticing (and sleeping) with Henri Cartier-Bresson and traveling to many parts of the world, including Iran, Spain, and South Africa. “Many of these jobs were implicitly marked female,” writes Gordon; a wedding, a funeral, Parisian boutiques, animals on TV. She did some straightforward commercial work, some portraiture. She befriended John Huston and worked as a set photographer on some of his movies, and by the late 1950s she’d started to work with Saul Steinberg on the wonderful “paper bag mask” series. Perhaps, all this time, she kept in mind Capa’s advice: “Just go on doing what you want to do anyway but call yourself a photojournalist.”
And then, in 1960, everything changed. She was invited to shoot on the set of Huston’s movie The Misfits, being filmed on location in Reno. The script was written by Arthur Miller, from one of his short stories, and the movie starred Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and Marilyn Monroe, who was then Miller’s wife.
Morath and Cartier-Bresson drove to Reno from New York, an 18-day road trip that seems not to have completely thrilled them. According to Gordon, “the two Parisians were most distraught about the food available on the road, their hopes raised and then dashed, for example, when a cube steak turned out to be just another hamburger.” They both took pictures along the way, sometimes of each other. Morath’s photographs from the trip appeared in book form some 46 years later, as The Road to Reno, which also included her journals.
They arrived to find the production in chaos. Huston was drunk most of the time, Monroe drugged on barbiturates and painkillers, showing up late or not at all, not knowing her lines, and attended by her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, who seems to have regarded her primary function as undermining Huston’s authority. One of the cameramen said he couldn’t film Monroe because “the eyes were gone,” and it’s interesting that the two Morath photographs of Monroe that appear in the biography both show her from the back, even though she shot plenty of others that showed the actress’s face.
Miller was suffering his own particular tortures. His marriage was in tatters, and as he dealt with that he also had to do regular rewrites of the script. He was, as one can imagine, in need of comfort, and he found it with Morath. By the time the production wrapped (not before Clark Gable had suffered a heart attack), Miller and Morath’s relationship had become serious, and they stayed together until Morath’s death in 2002.
They married in 1962, once Miller was divorced. They lived for a while in the Chelsea Hotel, then in an apartment in Manhattan, and chiefly on Miller’s 340-acre estate, a former dairy farm, in Roxbury, Connecticut, where he’d previously lived with Monroe.
Whether by choice, because of the tenor of the times, or at Miller’s insistence, Morath took on a subsidiary role in this creative cohabitation. She played the good wife, writing to Magnum that she couldn’t take on much work because “I have to take care of a husband whose superior talents often require cooking more urgently than my photography.”
She also became a mother, giving birth to two children. Her daughter, Rebecca, who went on to become a filmmaker and marry Daniel Day-Lewis, while her son, Daniel, was born with Down syndrome and was institutionalized for all of his life. None of Morath’s writings make any mention of the boy, and Miller managed the remarkable feat of writing an autobiography that completely omits mention of his son.
Whatever demands were made by Miller’s “superior talent,” Morath did continue to take photographs. She became her husband’s go-to set photographer and often photographed productions of his plays. Miller sounds like a controlling egotist, but being married to him did open some doors for Morath. When Miller was invited to interview Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Morath was there to take (what seems to me) a rather bland portrait of the great man.
As time went on, she did start to do some traveling by herself, although negotiation was still required. She said, “I cook his lunch and I can take my trips.” But whether alone or with Miller, the traveling became relentless — China, Japan, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Bhutan, Berlin when the wall came down. Much of it sounds incredibly grueling, though perhaps less so to somebody who had walked from Berlin to Salzburg through a war zone. And Morath’s traveling didn’t stop even after she had the diagnosis, and then the increasingly painful symptoms, of the lymphoma that killed her. There does seem to have been something obsessive about this need to be constantly in motion, though Gordon describes it simply as evidence of Morath’s “globalism.”
Linda Gordon is a very generous and supportive biographer, but a good deal of special pleading is required to make Morath into the paragon Gordon evidently wants her to be. In a chapter titled “World Photographer,” she writes about the extent to which the invention of photography stoked a curiosity about, and then a further desire to photograph, the non-Western world: National Geographic magazine, established in 1888, is a synecdoche for this “ethnological” urge. Gordon naturally disapproves of this kind of thing and says, “Because the photographers were usually European, their photographs often revealed more about their imperial perspective than about their subjects, as they so often focused on the allegedly ‘primitive,’ even emphasizing what magazine readers saw as grotesque.”
This is a sustainable argument, even if claiming to know how readers “saw” those magazines seems patronizing, and it is, of course, the current wisdom. Susan Goldberg, who in 2014 became the first female and first Jewish editor of National Geographic, ran an issue on race that contained much self-flagellation about the magazine’s less than “woke” past.
There’s a more difficult and, I think, less sustainable argument, in which Gordon asserts that the work of Magnum photographers was “remarkably free of the colonialist eye, reflecting a more democratic and open-minded view of cultural differences.” I’m really not sure that Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of India or China are quite so democratic and non-colonialist as this would suggest. And I’m not at all sure that Morath’s photographs taken in Iran, for example, are entirely free from the dreaded “Orientalism.”
The special pleading moves into a higher gear as Gordon describes Morath’s marriage to Miller. We’re told that when Morath moved into the Roxbury estate, “With her typical unflappability, Inge did not seem uncomfortable with any remaining Marilyn Monroe associations.” Well, unflappability might be one word for that, but I can think of others. Daughter Rebecca is quoted as saying that her mother fitted into life at Roxbury “with absolute bravery.” Gordon doesn’t question what this could possibly mean.
As for that line — “I have to take care of a husband whose superior talents often require cooking more urgently than my photography” — rarely has the phrase “Get your own damn dinner” seemed so appropriate. Clearly there’s no point in wishing that Morath was in some way a “better feminist,” but when Gordon shrugs this off and writes, “Many women lived with these contradictions, but few mastered them with so much success,” it’s hard to feel you’re getting the whole story.
But it’s Gordon’s consideration of Miller and Morath’s treatment of their son Daniel that seems simply unsupportable. It is, she says, “explained by several factors […] Most important no doubt was that in 1967 the majority of doctors advised parents to institutionalize children with Down syndrome.” No doubt? But given the couple’s wealth and connections it would surely have been possible to find doctors who took a minority view, if they’d wanted to. Things get even more difficult when we learn that Miller had a cousin, named Carl Barnett, also with Down syndrome, who had indeed been raised at home. Perhaps, and Gordon almost says this though not quite, it was the very fact of having witnessed the domestic stresses and difficulties of rearing a Down syndrome child that made Miller think he couldn’t live with such a burden. This might not be very noble, but it’s all too understandable. However, it’s the Miller-Morath’s failure even to mention the situation that’s so problematic. Were they ashamed of the boy or of themselves?
One of Morath’s assistants, according to Gordon, “surmised that Inge’s periodic unexplained absences were visits to him [Daniel] in Southbury.” Possibly so, but it’s not hard to surmise some quite different explanations. In any case, Gordon concludes, “raising Rebecca was rewarding enough to compensate for any guilt that lingered.” Spare us.
These things, of course, are the stuff of biography rather than aesthetic judgment, but they do raise the question of how good the work itself was, and whether it was helped or hindered by the sacrifices Morath made and the difficulties she faced. Certain members of Magnum weren’t impressed by Morath’s photography. Gordon writes, “Some in the New York Magnum group considered her a minor photographer, producing lightweight work, a dilettante rather than a professional. Some thought her marriage to a wealthy and famous man showed that photography was not her true calling.” Gordon says this is “a recapitulation of the sexism she faced during her first years with Magnum,” and sexism is no doubt involved, but it’s more complex than that, isn’t it? Wasn’t there also envy? Having a rich spouse might in fact free you to pursue your “true calling” without having to worry about how to pay the bills. Having enough money doesn’t strike me as overwhelming evidence of dilettantism: ask William Eggleston.
Comparisons may be odious but they’re hard to avoid. In the course of that Misfits shoot, nine big-name Magnum photographers worked on the set. Personal taste obviously comes into this, and Morath’s photographs are perfectly good, but compared with those by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eve Arnold, they seem remarkably tame. This especially applies to the photographs of Monroe. Cartier-Bresson and Arnold reveal depths that Morath doesn’t. Other views are no doubt possible.
Morath’s work, it seems to me, is very inconsistent. Her portrait of Fidel Castro is benign enough to appear in a Cuban government brochure, extolling the benefits of Cuban-style communism. The photographs of Miller’s productions just strike me as dull. On the other hand, there’s an apparently casual photograph of Louise Bourgeois with Andy Warhol at a gallery show that’s an absolute gem: capturing her intensity, his performative blankness.
In the end, the two sets of Morath’s photographs that strike me as absolutely great are, first, the photographs made in collaboration with Saul Steinberg. Subjects are elegantly posed and each has a paper bag over his or her head — a bag on which Steinberg has drawn a face that, like many masks, reveals far more than a “real” face or careful portrait ever could. The images are amusing, startling, but also strangely, perhaps surprisingly, profound. Morath’s photographs show her to be a full participant in the creations, not just the maker of a photographic record.
I’m also smitten with those pictures taken on the road to Reno. American road trip photographs are 10-a-penny, but Morath has found a way to make the subject her own. Female photographers I’ve heard talk on the subject are divided about whether there’s any such thing as a “female gaze,” still, you couldn’t mistake any of these pictures for a Robert Frank or a Garry Winogrand, and I do wonder if it was actually Morath’s discomfort with the road and with America that produced such startling results.
A passage in her journal reads:
Sirens. The turning lights of a police car. An accident. Two cars, completely battered. Out of the torn side of one of them spill the many objects a family packs for a holiday: dolls, boxing gloves, picnic tackle. Way out, remaining there senselessly and frail, a wicker baby carriage. I better go and drink some coffee. Howard Johnson, a sign says. “A landmark for hungry Americans.” I stop anyway.
I think that’s really good. Sometimes a few words are worth a thousand pictures.