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

Helen Balfour Morrison, Photographer

Born and raised in Evanston, Illinois, Helen Balfour Morrison (1900–1984) lived a life of relative prosperity until forced by her mother’s illness to take a job in a camera store to help support the family. Foregoing college, she took another job in a large photography studio, where she learned to operate a portrait camera, and develop and print photographs. Soon after, she and her brother Malcolm founded their own successful photography business, the Malcolm Balfour Studio in Evanston.

In 1926 Helen Balfour married Robert Morrison, a newspaperman and advertising executive. Following two serious illnesses, she turned over the studio business to her brother and moved to Winnetka, where she met the artist Carol Lou Burnham. Burnham invited Morrison to a lecture by landscape architect Jens Jensen, who inspired Morrison to develop her own skills in art photography.

During this period, Morrison photographed Rockwell Kent and Bill Kittredge of the Lakeside Press, who encouraged her to publish a series of portraits of “Great Americans.” She actively sought out subjects, assembling an extensive portfolio that was never published. In 1935, Morrison began her Kentucky photography project. She shot most of her Bluegrass scenes with 35 mm camera using roll film, but on her 1935 trip she probably worked with a larger view camera and 4-inch x 5-inch negatives.

In 1936 the O’Brien Gallery in Chicago hosted Morrison’s first major exhibition, which included 40 portraits of "Great Americans" and 10 images of "Sugar Hill and String Town" in Kentucky. Morrison continued to exhibit her work into the 1940s, handling all of her own film developing in the basement of the new Robert Seyfarth-designed home that the Morrisons built in Northbrook. She also enlarged, printed, mounted, and sometimes signed and titled her photographs, which she displayed at major museums and galleries in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York, and other cities.

Meeting modern dancer Sybil Shearer (1912-2005) in 1942 forever altered Morrison's artistic trajectory. She took fewer and fewer portraits, stopped exhibiting her own work by 1950, and devoted the remainder of her career to photographing, filming, staging, and lighting Shearer’s work.

Helen Morrison’s darkroom in the basement of her Northbrook home is an enduring testament to her photography career. Her well-used manuals, brochures, and recipes are still housed on a shelf close to her work area; and her developing, enlarging, printing, and mounting equipment remains in place. The 4-inch x 5-inch film camera and 35 mm film roll cameras that Morrison used in Kentucky are no longer in the house, indicating that she replaced cameras as new and improved models became available. She did keep two older cameras that must have been favorites, both 2-inch square film format Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta 532/16s, circa 1938.

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This page references:

  1. Helen with camera, Digital reproduction courtesy of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation
  2. Helen Balfour Morrison, List of Photography Subjects, in Notebook. Helen Balfour Morrison Papers, Box 6, Folder 212