Martha Graham, “Letter to the World” (Kick) (work of art)
Key Ideas about this Work of Art
- This is a photograph of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in motion. She is known as the mother of American modern dance. Her unique dance technique encouraged dancers to bring their individual experiences and emotions to their movements.
- Photographer Barbara Morgan uses the contrast between light and dark to draw attention to Graham’s graceful pose and to the inner conflict and sadness the dancer communicates with her pose and facial expression.
- Morgan often photographed dancers in action, to capture the emotion behind their movement. Her artistic style was in line with Graham’s philosophy of dance.
- Letter to the World (Kick) is one of Morgan’s most famous photographs. It helped launch her artistic career. The title of this work comes from an Emily Dickinson poem and a dance performance by Graham based on the life of Dickinson.
In 1935 Barbara Morgan saw a performance by modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. At that time they were both just beginning their artistic careers. Morgan was so inspired by the dance performance that she introduced herself to Graham, and the two artists agreed to work together on creative projects. This was the beginning of an artistic collaboration that lasted more than 60 years.
Morgan was commissioned by the Martha Graham Dance Company to photograph dancers in motion from 1935 through 1940. Her first book of photography, Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs, features Letter to the World (Kick). The kicking sequence Morgan is performing in this photograph is from her 1940 ballet performance based on the love life of American poet Emily Dickinson. The title of the work comes from Dickinson’s poem, “This is my letter to the world.” In her poem Dickinson expresses feelings of loneliness and disconnection from the rest of the world. Graham’s pose and facial expression express these same feelings, and Morgan captures them in her photograph. She also creates a sense of movement that seems to extend beyond the photograph itself.
Resources for Teachers:
- Read an article about Barbara Morgan.
- Read an article about women who changed the world of dance.
- Watch a video about the history of modern dance.
- Review an enrichment activity about Black Mountain College, an art school in North Carolina where Barbara Morgan taught classes in 1944.
- Explore a teaching guide for the children’s book Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer, which features this photograph.
Resources for Students:
- Explore other works by female artists at the NCMA.
- Watch a video of a dance routine choreographed by Martha Graham.
- Explore photography tips and experiment with creating your own photos!