The quiet brilliance of Magnum photographer Inge Morath


Inge Morath arrived at the newly formed Magnum photographic co-operative in Paris on July 14, 1949, with her friend and fellow photographer Ernst Haas (known as Haasi), looking for Robert Capa. The door was opened by a man with a hangover, with an ice bag on his head. The renowned war photographer was nowhere to be seen. Morath, who had expected to be greeted by “big shots” was disappointed. “I had bought a hat and felt a touch betrayed,” she wrote later.

It was not the last time she would feel that way as she forged a path through the aggressively masculine boys’ club that the agency was at the time. When she arrived from Vienna, aged 26, she was an experienced editor and reporter, who had worked with Haasi as a photo-story team for Life and other magazines. She trained with Simon Guttmann, a picture editor with Picture Post, and later with her on-off lover Henri Cartier Bresson before becoming a full photographic member of Magnum in 1955. But she knew she would have to prove herself.

“Being one of the then rather rare women photographers… was often difficult for the simple reason that nobody felt one was serious (what does a pretty girl like you want in this profession?). Much male condescension… I certainly do not think that I got the same forceful male brotherhood support the men got.”





A couple returning from Dacha, on the train between Lomonosov and Leningrad, 1989.



A couple returning from Dacha, on the train between Lomonosov and Leningrad, 1989. Morath first visited Russia with Miller, under perestroika, travelling by train from Dusseldorf toMoscow because, she said, ‘I had wanted to feel the vastness that separates east from west’. Photograph: Inge Morath/Magnum Photos

Inge Morath: An Illustrated Biography goes some way to righting that wrong. Written by the historian Linda Gordon, whose last book was about the great documentarist Dorothea Lange, it makes the case for Morath as a photographer of calm distinction. It also faithfully tells the story of an extraordinary life, which took Morath from a childhood under the “heavy curtain” of the Nazi regime in Austria to her marriage to Arthur Miller, world famous playwright – which was his third, and her second, and which lasted until her death in 2002 at the age of 78.

Gordon admits that she didn’t know much about her subject before she started to research the book. “But one of the things that fascinated me was the way her life intersected with so many of the events of the 20th century: she had an extremely itinerant childhood and as an adult was comfortable in every culture. She was a terrific linguist, a citizen of the world.

“The second thing that fascinated me was that her parents were very happy to live with the Nazi regime and – if I can put it in a colloquial way – what a story it is for a woman who comes from that background to end up marrying a Jewish, Brooklyn, working-class commie. I loved the idea of being able to talk about that transformation.”

Morath’s childhood, in fact, would support an entire book in itself. Her parents were scientists, who travelled around Europe for work. When war broke out, they were living in Berlin, where Morath studied languages. By 1945, however, 22-year-old Morath was living in the city on her own, working in a factory that was bombed. She fled, walking 455 miles in appalling conditions, to join her parents in Salzburg.

She never commented explicitly on Nazi ideology, but there was no doubting her exhilaration at being free. “She was just a very, very positive person,” says Gordon.

This silent ability to adapt came into play again when she met Arthur Miller, then married to Marilyn Monroe, while shooting on the set of The Misfits in 1960. As their romance developed, after his relationship with Monroe broke down irretrievably, this sophisticated, independent woman revealed herself willing to change. After their marriage in 1962, Morath gave up life in Paris, and a hard-won and dazzling career, and settled into suburban domesticity in Connecticut. She continued to take photographs, but it was only after their child, Rebecca (now a film-maker and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis), grew up that she took up her camera fully once more, notably on their joint trips to countries such as Russia. “She accommodated,” says Gordon. “That is a word I would use a lot of her life. She accommodated to get along with other people.”





Marilyn Monroe during the filming of The Misfits, Reno, Nevada, 1960



Marilyn Monroe during the filming of The Misfits, Reno, Nevada, 1960. Photograph: Inge Morath/Magnum Photos

Morath’s submission to Miller had one result that was only revealed after his death. She went along with his insistence that their son Daniel, who was born with Down’s syndrome, was institutionalised from birth. She visited him regularly, but remained silent about the fact of his existence even to her closest friends.

Her photographs speak for her, down the years, establishing her as an artist with a painterly eye, who never condescended to her subjects but waited patiently for the moment when they would reveal themselves to her. She was an early pioneer of colour photography, and an accomplished technician. Although she was never a photojournalist, the range of her work was vast, from the ethnographic beauty of the studies she made of Iran on a journey there in 1956, to photographs of poverty in Gaza in 1960, to her portraits and coverage of fashion shows.

Her approach was unsentimental and direct. She had no airs or graces. Gordon insisted the biography should include an anonymous photograph of Morath at work in a dusty street in Persepolis, Iran, in 1956. She’s wearing a baggy, old coat and trousers, her hair scraped back in a headscarf as she looks intently through her camera. “This was a woman who knew how to do very hard work and was quite willing to do it in very uncomfortable circumstances. She was not afraid of hardship and she just loved the process of doing photography.”

Inge Morath: An Illustrated Biography by Linda Gordon is published by Magnum Foundation/Prestel (£39.95). To order a copy for £35.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99



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