Remembering Martha Swope

By Global Newsbytes editorial staff

The professional life of legendary ballet and Broadway photographer Martha Swope (1928-2017) is well known:  She served as the official photographer for the New York City Ballet, chronicled the work of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Martha Graham, and captured what have become iconic moments in the careers of many of the world’s leading theatrical artists. Swope left a body of work totaling more than 1 million photos to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, including classic images of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Liza Minelli, Chita Rivera, and Igor Stravinsky, among others. She was honored with a Tony for Excellence in Theatre and a lifetime achievement award from the League of Professional Theater Women.

Her private life, though, remained largely private, and she shared few personal details about herself – even with many of her even closest friends. To help create a fuller portrait of this remarkable artistic personality, we asked former dancer and Hofstra Professor Emerita Dr. Jeanne Fuchs, the executor of Ms. Swope’s estate and a friend for 60 years, to share some of her experiences and memories….

DR. FUCHS:

Martha was born in Tyler, TX and was raised in Waco. She had a younger brother, Robert Swope, and a younger sister, Mae Louise Swope. She never married and never had children. She grew up very poor and her father, John Swope, died in 1948. I don’t believe he was around much. Her mother, Nellie Clark Swope, was originally from North Carolina and she was the strong and reliable one in the family.

Martha was a great reader; she also memorized poetry, which she loved, including the entire Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. She read the Bible and knew it well. She delighted in telling a story about one hot Texas summer when she and her siblings sat in the shade of a big tree and raced through the Bible (of course, she won). She studied dance in Waco with Elmer Wheatley, who taught ballet, tap, acrobatics, and baton twirling. Martha was a great tap dancer.

She was extremely sensitive and loved all games – word games, card games, and puzzles (jigsaw and crossword). She watched Jeopardy all the time. She did not have an active social life because she worked constantly. Her list of photos takes up 500 pages in the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. She has numerous books: The New York City Ballet, Martha Graham: Portrait of the Lady and the Artist, Baryshnikov at Work, The Nutcracker, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (photos of the NYC Ballet productions), Mourka, the Autobiography of a Cat (the story of Tanaquil LeClercq and George Balanchine’s cat, Mourka). She also took many pictures for the Ballet Cook Book, which I worked on with Tanny Le Clercq, testing all of Mr. Balanchine’s recipes and many others (from many of the famous dancers in the book). LeClercq, a legendary dancer, was Balanchine’s last wife. She and I were also good friends.

Martha traveled a lot with a good friend from the NYC Ballet, and earlier in her life my family and I went on many vacations with her and her niece, Carol, her sister’s only daughter, whom she liked to bring up to New York from Texas during the summer. We spent a couple of weeks at the house of Burt Martinson (owner of Martinson’s coffee and a contributor to the ballet) in the Puerto Rican rain forest, and vacationed in Connecticut, and in Martha’s Vineyard, before she bought a house in East Atlantic Beach. She loved that house, which she only sold in 2014. She just couldn’t go there anymore. Her Parkinson’s Disease was too debilitating.

She used to come and visit me in Venice when I taught a course there for Hofstra University’s January session. We’d go to museums and concerts, and to Harry’s Bar, and had a lot of fun. She went to Machu Picchu, Easter Island, the Galapagos, and many trips to London, Madrid, Paris and Rome, sometimes for work, but mainly for amusement. Egypt, too, before it got too dangerous. So she had a full life with friends and with theater people, but kept extremely busy for nearly 50 years, working non-stop.

She was an extremely private woman and did not like to be interviewed or questioned too much. She wanted to be behind the camera and not in front of it. She had a simple and plain way of thinking about dance and performing but her photos showed and revealed the complexity behind the work and people she photographed. She was a very hard worker and would stay up all night developing prints in her own darkroom.

Jerome Robbins gave her her first big break when he asked her to photograph rehearsals of West Side Story. They were a huge success in both Dance Magazine and Life Magazine, and then Lincoln Kirstein, the co-founder of NYC Ballet and the School of American Ballet, asked her to become the official photographer for NYC Ballet. I was in the same class with her the day that occurred. She gave up dancing to pursue her new career full time.

She especially loved and revered George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Lincoln Kirstein, Melissa Hayden, Maria Tallchief, Jacques d’Amboise, Francisco Moncion, Nicholas Magallanes, and of course LeClercq (from NYC Ballet), but also Galina Ulanova, whom she photographed at the Brussels World Fair in the 1950s. She was the first photographer to take a shot from the back of the stage of the ballerina taking a bow. In Brussels, the one of Ulanova’s bow after a performance of The Dying Swan became iconic, and later one of Balanchine taking a bow after a premiere at the State Theater, and then the 30th anniversary of A Chorus Line (a shot of the entire audience cheering the dancers at the end of the show. From the theater, she adored Jose Quintero, George C. Scott, Coleen Dewhurst, Kevin Kline, and Meryl Streep, and the list goes on. She photographed many at The Circle in the Square and at the Public Theater. In short, throughout her career she photographed everybody who was anybody.

Despite her great success, she was never prideful or overbearing. She had only a few close friends. I am about the only old friend left but the other two were Gayle Young, principal dancer with American Ballet Theater and Tommy Abbott from the original West Side Story and Jerome Robbins’ right hand man for setting West Side, Fiddler on the Roof, Ballets USA, and his ballets for NYC Ballet around the globe. Both are dead. We were all in the same class at SAB originally. It was a wonderful period and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The exhibit “In Rehearsal” at the Vincent Astor Gallery at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (September 27-January 26, 2013) captured indelibly Martha’s ability to seize an isolated moment in the rehearsal process and render it timeless.

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