Helen Balfour Morrison and the Modern Portrait | Newberry

Helen Balfour Morrison and the Modern Portrait

Led by Wendy Castanell and Amy Mooney
Saturday, October 9, 2021



For the Fall 2021 term, we’re offering a mix of virtual and in-person classes. Although we are still primarily virtual, you will find a smaller selection of in-person seminars in the schedule. For more information about the Newberry’s virtual seminars, including a Zoom tutorial, please see our Virtual Seminars FAQ page. Registration opens on September 1st at 9am (Central time). Registration will take place through our online platform, Learning Stream.

Please note: classes that are currently scheduled to take place in the building may switch to virtual in accordance with public health and safety guidelines. Additionally, masks are required for all attendees, regardless of vaccination status. We will email participants with any changes the week before seminars begin.

Seminar Description

This seminar will consider the role of portraiture in the construction of modern subjectivity. Participants will have the opportunity to explore the work of Helen Balfour Morrison (1900-1984), a relatively unknown photographer active in the 1930s through the 1960s, who sought to reveal the inner character of her subjects. Trained as a commercial studio photographer, Morrison learned to look at her subjects with both a critical and empathetic eye, engaging them in conversation until she captured their interior character. We will begin in the galleries of the exhibition, Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time, considering Morrison’s portrait of Katherine Kuh, a cutting edge curator and advocate of modern art. We will then look toward the photographer’s earlier project on African Americans living in Kentucky freetowns, a series that has parallels in work of Doris Ulman and Dorthea Lange who both looked to document and raise public awareness. Participants will then have the opportunity to study other portraits by the photographer from her series, ‘Great Americans” in which she sought to portray those who innovatively contributed to their diverse fields such as painter Ivan Albright, activist Jane Addams, singer Ethel Waters, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Our seminar will end with an examination of how the expectations of portraiture have changed, yet still, reveals the interior self through the exterior signs of prop, pose, costume and setting looking to the Obama portraits and others by contemporary artists.

One session. Registration – $85

Wendy Castenell is an Assistant Professor of African American Art in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Alabama. Her research interests include representations of race and ethnicity in American visual culture, portraiture, photography, early cinema, and turn-of-the-century spectacles.

Amy M. Mooney, a specialist in African American Art, teaches at Columbia College Chicago where she is an Associate Professor in art history. In 2019-20, she held the Terra Foundation for American Art Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford where she delivered, Regarding the Portrait, a lecture series that explored the social function of portraiture in American art and visual culture.” .

Materials List


Cost and Registration Information 

Registration Information

Registration opens at 9 am (CST) on Wednesday, September 1st . Newberry Associates members at the Literati level and above will have access to early registration beginning August 25th at 10am. Learn more about membership benefits and becoming a Newberry Associate.

Please note: The Newberry is moving to a new registration system called Learning Stream. This will simplify the registration process for participants, instructors, and staff. For more information about registration, including a guide to online registration, see our Registration Information page. Questions? Please contact seminars program staff via email at seminars@newberry.org.

We offer a 10% discount to members, seniors, and students.

This seminar is part of the Newberry’s Adult Education Seminars Program. Learn more about registering for a seminar, program policies, or teaching a seminar.