Northbrook's Morrison-Shearer Foundation Safeguards Photo Legacy with Donation to the Newberry Library Archives

  • Pictured: "Sheaf of Dreams." Pictured, Sybil Shearer. Photo by Helen Balfour Morrison, courtesy of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation.

    Pictured: "Sheaf of Dreams." Pictured, Sybil Shearer. Photo by Helen Balfour Morrison, courtesy of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation.

Updated 6/4/2019 7:38 AM

The Morrison-Shearer Foundation is pleased to announce it has made a major gift of photos and negatives by the late 20th Century photographer Helen Balfour Morrison to the Newberry Library's archives. This donation of the Morrison collection is an addition to the Newberry Library's current collection of more than 110 vintage Morrison photographs from Morrison's African American Kentucky collection, plus nearly 500 photographs and 500 negatives from Morrison's Great Americans collection.

Morrison was a leading photographer in the 20th Century whose striking photography is also part of collections at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other institutions. In the 1930s and 1940s she photographed nearly 200 notable personalities of the 20th Century, 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, as well as persons from all walks of life. Morrison was said to be able to "photograph the soul" (art critic J. B. Newman); and was said to possess the "uncanny ability to look into people and let the surface of a person reveal the inner being on a momentary as well as an eternal basis" (Sybil Shearer, 1990). Morrison preferred to shoot using only natural light and in black and white film. She is best known for her collaborations with iconic dancer Shearer. An additional donation by the Foundation of Shearer's memorabilia, papers and photographs to the Newberry Library is expected to take place in the coming year.


"This gift from the Foundation to the Newberry is especially important because of the significant artistic contributions of photographer and filmmaker Helen Balfour Morrison, and the subject of much of her work, dancer choreographer Sybil Shearer," says Foundation Executive Director Corinne M. Pierog. "Both modernists have been virtually absent from scholarly study. Following Shearer's death in 2005, the Foundation's Trustees privately held the collection until a suitable repository was found that would honor, preserve and disseminate the remarkable legacy of these two extraordinary women. After a national search, the right home for this important body of work was found in Chicago at the Newberry Library."

Newberry staff are in the process of archiving Morrison's newly gifted photos so that users may access them at the library. The photographs are currently available by appointment only.

"We are grateful for this gift from the Morrison-Shearer Foundation, which has been such a dedicated steward of this impressive collection of photographs by Helen Balfour Morrison," said Alison Hinderliter, Lloyd Lewis Curator of Modern Manuscripts at the Newberry. "Morrison's photos sparkle with honesty and humanity; they are candid snapshots of the people and places that caught her attention. Here at the Newberry, the photos' historical and artistic significance will be amplified by other intriguing materials related to American culture, as well as the history of Chicago and the Midwest, in our collection."

Select photos by Morrison will provide reference in the Newberry Library's upcoming panel discussion, "Choreography and the Archives: Preservation, Tradition and Innovation from Sybil Shearer through the Present," Thursday, June 13 from 6-7:30 p.m. in the Library's Ruggles Hall, 60 W. Walton St., Chicago. The panel, moderated by WTTW's Hedy Weiss, will include Chicago's Jan Bartoszek founder and artistic director for Hedwig Dances; New York-based choreographer, educator, performer and dance preservationist Ella Rosewood whose repertoire includes works by seminal artists including Shearer; Melissa Thodos, founder and director of Thodos Dance Chicago which restaged several of Shearer's works in 2015 and Luis Vazquez, a Winning Works choreographer for the Joffrey Ballet and former Thodos Dance Chicago dancer. This event is free and open to the public but tickets are required. For tickets or more information visit This event is part of the programming related to the Library's current free exhibition, "The Legacy of Chicago Dance," running through July 6, in the Roger J. Trienens Galleries.

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