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Helen Balfour Morrison (1901-1984)

May 1, 2014
Helen Morrison
Self Portrait, Helen Balfour Morrison

Our FIRST STEPS program tonight spotlights dancers/choreographers Ruth Page and Sybil Shearer, but let’s not forget about another talented woman behind these films – Helen Balfour Morrison. Helen collaborated with Sybil Shearer to produce a large collection of extraordinary dance photographs and films. Helen was behind the camera, while Sybil was in front of it.

The Morrison-Shearer Film Collection, which is owned by the Morrison-Shearer Foundation and housed and cared for by CFA, contains over 430 16mm films, 195 8mm films and 200 1/4″ audio reels. Almost all of the moving-image materials were shot by Helen.

Helen Balfour Morrison (1901-1984) was born in Evanston, Illinois, the daughter of Fannie Lindley and Alexander Balfour, an engineer and a proud, aristocratic Scotsman. When Helen was 17, her mother died, and Helen took a job in a photography studio to help support the family. At this studio she learned to use the portrait camera and helped expand the studio’s business with creative ideas of her own.

In the 1930s, Helen embarked upon a personal photography project – the Great Americans series. She photographed some 200 notable personalities including Robert Frost, Helen Hayes, Nelson Algren, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Mies van der Rohe, Amelia Earhart, Jane Addams, and Saul Bellow. Most of these portrait sessions took place in Chicago or in New York and were exhibited widely in museums throughout the country.

In 1942, Morrison met Sybil Shearer, and although her portrait work and exhibitions of the Great Americans continued, her attention gradually shifted to Sybil as her primary subject. She finally abandoned the Great Americans series in 1945. Her collaboration with Sybil Shearer produced a large collection of extraordinary dance photographs and films, as well as an intense and sensitive documentation of the life of this artist. Today her extensive portfolio remains largely unpublished and unknown, something the Morrison-Shearer Foundation and now, CFA, are working to rectify.

In a real sense, Helen sacrificed her own career to promote that of Sybil. Besides designing the lighting, Helen took over the complete management of Sybil’s publicity, performances, travel arrangements, and hospitality. She experimented with the role of impresario, presenting dancer Ruth St. Denis in 1946 and both dancer Eleanor King and sculptor Richard Lippold in 1948. In 1949 she conceived a short-lived series of programs which she called “Rondo,” presenting other artists, including Uta Hagan, Merce Cunningham, pianist William Masselos, and Frank Lloyd Wright. In later years she made films to record Sybil’s dances, and made one artistic film of her own.

See Helen’s moving-image work tonight at FIRST STEPS  – Thursday, May 1st (7PM) at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema (1104 S. Wabash, 8th Floor). More on the program here


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