Photographing Freetowns: African American Kentucky Through the Lens of Helen Balfour Morrison, 1935-1946

Friends, Family, Photography

Helen Balfour Morrison left only a few tantalizing clues about her Kentucky trips in her personal papers. Letters from two men with whom she corresponded regularly, her husband Robert Bruce Morrison (1902-1966) and landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860-1950), indicate that both men supported and facilitated her travels to the state.

During the 1930s and 40s, Bob Morrison traveled frequently as an advertising executive for Colliers, The National Weekly. He often wrote cheerily to his wife when they were apart. In a 1930 note addressed to Helen at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, he teased that “…two or three days of yours will probably extend to Derby Day.” This brief comment suggests that Helen had an interest in Kentucky horse racing prior to her Bluegrass photography trips.

In her reminiscences, Helen Morrison wrote that Jens Jensen, the Chicago and Door County prairie school landscape architect, was “the beginning of my career as an artist in photography.” By Helen’s first trip to Kentucky in 1935, she and Jensen were in frequent contact and she was confident enough in her artistic skills to take the first of several photographic portraits of him. Jensen, who had earlier produced landscape designs for the Fisher family of Dixiana Farms, supplied Helen with a general letter of introduction on April 19, 1935.

Sharing Jens Jensen’s almost mystical belief in the artistic interplay of light and shade, Morrison constructed her philosophy of photography from this concept: “The photographs intend to bring into focus what Burrows [i.e. John Burroughs] alludes to as ‘the vital principle’ which in my language is light … a cosmic essence.”
 

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  1. Robert B. Morrison, Letter to Helen Balfour Morrison, 1930. Helen Balfour Morrison Papers, Box 2, Folder 71
  2. Robert B. Morrison, Letter to Helen Balfour Morrison, 1930. Helen Balfour Morrison Papers, Box 2, Folder 71
  3. Writings on photography. Helen Balfour Morrison Papers, Box 4, Folder 152
  4. Writings on photography. Helen Balfour Morrison Papers, Box 4, Folder 152
  5. Writings on photography. Helen Balfour Morrison Papers, Box 4, Folder 152