Through the Lens of Helen Balfour Morrison | Newberry

Through the Lens of Helen Balfour Morrison

A new acquisition of vintage photographs and negatives makes the Newberry the largest repository of the work of the twentieth-century photographer.

Helen Balfour Morrison

In the 1930s and ’40s, Helen Balfour Morrison photographed the residents of Kentucky’s “Freetowns,” communities settled by freedmen in the decades following the Civil War.

November 2016

With the recent acquisition of more than 110 vintage photographs and 500 negatives from the Morrison-Shearer Foundation, the Newberry has become the largest repository of the work of twentieth-century photographer Helen Balfour Morrison. Morrison, whose work received critical acclaim when it first appeared, has since faded from prominence in the art world. But her original prints survive as visual evidence of a photographer learning her craft; they also contribute to the larger history of American documentary photography as a medium for both artistic expression and social commentary.


Morrison lived and worked on Chicago’s North Shore, where she achieved renown for her “Great Americans” series, portraits of notable cultural figures such as Mies van der Rohe, Amelia Earhart, and Frank Lloyd Wright. She also ventured outside of her studio, traveling to the Bluegrass region of Kentucky on several occasions in the 1930s and ‘40s.


While there, Morrison photographed residents of Kentucky’s “Freetowns,” small communities settled by freedmen in the decades following the Civil War. She recorded the men, women, and children of the towns at home and at work.


“The images from the Freetowns reveal the dignity, independence, and strength of the people who called them home,” says Martha Briggs, Lloyd Lewis Curator of Modern Manuscripts at the Newberry. “Morrison’s photographs invite further investigation to understand the experiences of residents of these African American communities, as well as the racial dynamics animating their relationship with a white documentarian.”


Such investigation might be undertaken by researchers interested in photography as an art form, historians exploring the history of race or rural labor in America, or genealogists filling in the details of their family trees.


In January, the Newberry will open Photographing Freetowns, an exhibition displaying nearly 80 of Morrison’s original prints, together with contextual materials from other parts of the Newberry’s collection. In the meantime, users can access Morrison’s Kentucky work online in a digital gallery or via the collection’s online inventory.


Morrison’s “Great American” portraits will arrive at the Newberry next year.