Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Remembering Margaret Morton Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

3 July 2020

Margaret Morton, who spent two decades photographing the homeless, died suddenly late last month at the age of 71.

She was born in Akron, Ohio, where her mother was an elementary school teacher and her father taught industrial arts in high school. She graduated from Kent State University in 1970 when the campus was occupied by government tanks. In 1977, she received an MFA from Yale's School of Art and joined its faculty to teach graphic design.

She began a long association with Cooper Union in 1980 when she moved to New York City, becoming a full-time faculty member in 1985. There she taught graphic design and photography and was the director of the school's off-campus programs.

There she was remembered for her dedication to her students and support for new teachers. She taught an annual course exploring the medium of the artists book in addition to her regular courses.

"She had a profound influence on four decades of designers and photographers," the school noted.

As she walked to campus she began photographing the improvised homes of the homeless.

The homeless encampments at Tompkins Square Park were across the street from her apartment and on her way to work. As she walked to campus she began photographing the improvised homes of the homeless.

After the park was bulldozed in 1989, Morton followed the people who had lived there, documenting their lives for the next 10 years and advocating for their welfare.

That included her portrayal of the Mole People who lived in a railroad tunnel under Riverside Park. Sheltered from the elements underground, they built a community in which shafts of light were their sky until 1995 when Amtrak sealed off the tunnel.

Morton, along with others, argued for federal subsidies to find them homes. She had seen them turn what little they had into homes with nightstands and gardens. Her first book Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives published by Yale University Press, celebrated those makeshift urban gardens.

The critic Vivien Raynor called her images "radical for proposing that to be out on the street is not necessarily to be insane. And they do it by emphasizing the ordinary: one man leans on a hoe chatting with his neighbor just like any other householder, another man relaxes by his homemade pond (complete with goldfish) as if he were waiting to be served a drink, poolside."

Her last book was Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan, published in 2014. She had been impressed by the elaborate tombs that combined nomadic custom with Muslim architecture and made several visits to the region to document them.

In addition to her books, her photographs have appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Atlantic. They have also been shown in many solo and group exhibitions.

Her friend Janet Odgis, former adjunct professor in the School of Art at Cooper Union, remembered her:

Margaret opened our eyes to the beauty that we didn't know existed in ourselves and in everyone she knew. She respected, appreciated, validated and documented humanity and life with intelligence, irony and compassion where others just saw ugliness. Margaret was the gentlest, most unassuming, talented, brilliant artist, photographer, devoted teacher, author. I am grateful to call her my dear friend.

Inspired by the work of Walker Evans, her work neither romanticizes nor sentimentalizes its subject. Instead it is marked by exquisite formal qualities. It graces the noble effort to make something of one's own out of nothing with all the vestments of art, showing the qualities of marble in corrogated cardboard and the strength of a redwood in a tended weed.

BackBack to Photo Corners