“Photography is a strange phenomenon. You trust your eye and you cannot help but bare your soul. One’s vision finds of necessity the form suitable to express it.” – Inge Morath
Inge Morath was born in Graz, Austria, in 1923. First educated in French-speaking schools, Morath relocated in the 1930s with her family to Darmstadt, a German intellectual center, and then to Berlin, where Morath’s father directed a laboratory specializing in wood chemistry. Morath was registered at the Luisenschule near Bahnhof Friedrichstraße.
Morath’s first encounter with avant-garde art was the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition organized by the Nazi Party in 1937, which sought to inflame public opinion against modern art. “I found a number of these paintings exciting and fell in love with Franz Marc’s Blue Horse“, Morath later wrote. “Only negative comments were allowed, and thus began a long period of keeping silent and concealing thoughts.”
After finishing high school, Morath passed the Abitur and was obliged to complete six months of service for the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service) before entering Berlin University. At university, Morath studied languages. She became fluent in French, English and Romanian in addition to her native German. To these she later added Spanish, Russian and Chinese. “I studied where I could find a quiet space, in the University and the Underground stations that served as air-raid shelters. I did not join the Studentenschaft (Student Body).”
Toward the end of World War II, Morath was drafted for factory service in Tempelhof, a neighbourhood of Berlin, alongside Ukrainian prisoners of war. During an attack on the factory by Russian bombers, she fled on foot to Austria. In later years, Morath refused to photograph war, preferring to work on stories that showed its consequences.
After studying languages in Berlin, she became a translator, then a journalist and the Austrian editor for Heute, an Information Service Branch publication based in Munich. All her life, Morath would remain a prolific diarist and letter-writer, retaining a dual gift for words and pictures that made her unusual among her colleagues.
A friend of photographer Ernst Haas, she wrote articles to accompany his photographs and was invited by Robert Capa and Haas to Paris to join the newly founded Magnum agency as an editor and researcher. She became a full member in 1955.
She began photographing in London in 1951, and joined Magnum Photos as a photographer in 1953. While working on her own first assignments, Morath also assisted Henri Cartier-Bresson during 1953-54, becoming a full member in 1955.
Like many Magnum members, Morath worked as a still photographer on numerous motion picture sets. Having met director John Huston while she was living in London, Morath worked on several of his films. Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) was one of Morath’s earliest assignments, and her first time working in a film studio. When Morath confessed to Huston that she had only one roll of color film to work with and asked for his help, Huston bought three more rolls for her, and occasionally waved to her to indicate the right moments to step in with her camera. Huston later wrote of Morath that she “is a high priestess of photography. She has the rare ability to penetrate beyond surfaces and reveal what makes her subject tick.”
In the following years, Morath traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Her special interest in the arts found expression in photographic essays published by a number of leading magazines. After her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller in 1962, Morath settled in New York and Connecticut. She first visited the USSR in 1965. In 1972 she studied Mandarin and obtained a visa to China, making the first of many trips to the country in 1978.
Morath was at ease anywhere. Some of her most important work consists of portraits, but of passers-by as well as celebrities. She was also adept at photographing places: her pictures of Boris Pasternak’s home, Pushkin’s library, Chekhov’s house, Mao Zedong’s bedroom, artists’ studios and cemetery memorials are permeated with the spirit of invisible people still present. Inge Morath died in New York City on 30 January 2002.