Morath's first encounter with avant-garde art was the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition organized by the Nazi party in 1937, which sought to inflame public opinion against modern art. "I found a number of these paintings exciting and fell in love with Franz Marc's Blue Horse," Morath later wrote. "Only negative comments were allowed, and thus began a long period of keeping silent and concealing thoughts."
Germany began the Second World War in 1939. After finishing high school, Morath passed the Abitur and was obliged to complete six months of service for the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service) before entering Berlin University. At university, Morath studied languages. She became fluent in French, English, and Romanian in addition to her native German (to these she later added Spanish, Russian, and Chinese). "I studied where I could find a quiet space, in the University and the Underground stations that served as air-raid shelters. I did not join the Studentenschaft (Student Organization)." Towards the end of the war, Morath was drafted for factory service in Tempelhof, alongside Ukrainian prisoners of war. During an attack on the factory by Russian bombers, she fled on foot to Austria. In later years, Morath refused to photograph war, preferring to work on stories that showed its consequences.
After the Second World War, Morath worked as a translator and journalist. In 1948, she was hired by Warren Trabant, first as Vienna Correspondent and later as the Austrian editor, for Heute, an illustrated magazine published by the US Information Agency in Munich. Morath encountered photographer Ernst Haas in post-war Vienna, and brought his work to Trabant's attention. Working together for Heute, Morath wrote articles to accompany Haas' pictures. In 1949, Morath and Haas were invited by Robert Capa to join the newly-founded Magnum Photos in Paris, where she would work as an editor. Working with contact sheets sent into the Magnum office by founding member Henri Cartier Bresson fascinated Morath. "I think that in studying his way of photographing I learned how to photograph myself, before I ever took a camera into my hand.
Morath was briefly married to the British journalist Lionel Birch and relocated to London in 1951. That same year, she began to photograph during a visit to Venice. "It was instantly clear to me that from now on I would be a photographer," she wrote. "As I continued to photograph I became quite joyous. I knew that I could express the things I wanted to say by giving them form through my eyes. Morath applied for an apprenticeship with Simon Guttman, who was at that time an editor for Picture Post and running the picture-agency Report. When Guttman demanded to know what Morath wanted to photograph, and why, she answered that "after the isolation of Nazism I felt I had found my language in photography. After Morath had spent several months working as Guttman's secretary, he finally set her to work. She sold her first photographs, of opening nights, exhibitions, inaugurations, etc., under the pseudonym Egni Tharom, her own name spelled backwards.
Morath divorced Birch and returned to Paris to pursue a career in photography. In 1953, Morath presented her first large picture story, on the Worker Priests of Paris, to Capa, and he invited her to join the agency as a photographer. Her first assignments for Magnum were stories that were of no interest to "the big boys." One of her earliest assignments took her to London for a story about the inhabitants Soho and Mayfair. Morath's portrait of Mrs. Evelyn Nash, from that assignment, is among her best known photographs. In 1953-54, at Capa's suggestion, Morath worked with Cartier-Bresson as a researcher and assistant, and in 1955 she was invited to become a full member of Magnum Photos. During the late 1950s Morath traveled widely, covering stories in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the United States, and South America for such publications as Holiday, Paris Match, and Vogue. She published Guerre à la Tristesse, photographs of Spain, with Robert Delpire in 1955, followed by De la Perse à l'Iran, photographs of Iran, in 1958. Morath published more than thirty monographs during her lifetime.
Like many Magnum members, Morath worked as a still photographer on numerous motion picture sets. Having met director John Huston while she was living in London, Morath worked on several of his films. Huston's Moulin Rouge (1952) was one of Morath's earliest assignments as a photographer, and her first time working in a film studio. When Morath confessed to Huston that she had only one roll of color film to work with and asked for his help, Huston obtained three more rolls for her, and occasionally waved to her to indicate the right moments to step in with her camera. Huston later wrote of Morath that she "is a high priestess of photography. She has the rare ability to penetrate beyond surfaces and reveal what makes her subject tick."
In 1960, while photographing the making of The Unforgiven, starring Audrey Hepburn, Burt Lancaster, and Audie Murphy, Morath accompanied Huston and his friends duck hunting on a mountain lake outside Durango, Mexico. Photographing the excursion, Morath saw through her telephoto lens that Murphy and his companion had capsized their boat 350 feet from shore, and that Murphy, stunned, was near to drowning. A skilled swimmer, Morath stripped to her underwear and hauled the two men ashore by her bra strap while the hunt continued uninterrupted.
Morath worked again with Huston in 1960 on the set of The Misfits, a blockbuster film featuring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift, with a screenplay by Arthur Miller. Magnum Photos had been given exclusive rights to photograph the making of the movie, and Morath and Cartier-Bresson were the first of nine photographers to work on location, outside Reno, Nevada, during its filming. Morath met Miller while working on The Misfits, and - following Miller's divorce from Monroe - they were married on February 17, 1962. Miller and Morath's first child, Rebecca, was born in September 1962. Rebecca Miller is today a film director, actress, and writer. The couple's second child, Daniel, was born in 1966 with Down syndrome and was institutionalized shortly after his birth.
Morath's achievements during her first decade of work as a photographer are significant. Along with Eve Arnold, she was among the first women members of Magnum Photos, which remains to this day a predominantly male organization. Many critics have written of the element of playful surrealism that characterizes Morath's work from this period. Morath attributed this to the long conversations she had with Cartier Bresson during their travels in Europe and the United States. Like many of her early Magnum colleagues, however, Morath's work was motivated by a fundamental humanism, shaped as much by the experience of war as by its lingering shadow over post-war Europe. This motivation grows, in Morath's mature work, into a motif as she documents the endurance of the human spirit under situations of extreme duress as well as its manifestations of ecstasy and joy.
Reflecting on the importance of Morath's linguistic gifts to their shared projects, Arthur Miller wrote that "travel with her was a privilege because [alone] I would never been able to penetrate that way. In many respects, however, Morath's photographs and Miller's texts offer two sides of the same coin. In their travels Morath translated for Miller, while his literary work provided innumerable opportunities for Morath to encounter an international artistic elite. The Austrian photographer Kurt Kaindl, Morath's long-time colleague, has noted that "their cooperation develop[ed] without outward pressure and is solely motivated by their common interest in the people and the respective cultural sphere, a situation that corresponds to Inge Morath's working style, since she generally feels inhibited by assignments.
At home and wherever she traveled, Morath sought out, befriended, and photographed artists and writers. During the '50s she had photographed artists for Robert Delpire's magazine L'Oeil, including Jean Arp and Alberto Giacometti. She met the artist Saul Steinberg in 1958. When she went to his home to make a portrait, Steinberg came to the door wearing a mask that he had fashioned from a paper bag. Over a period of several years they collaborated on a series of portraits, inviting individuals and groups of people to pose for Morath wearing Steinberg's masks. Another long term project was Morath's documentation of many of the most important productions of Arthur Miller's plays.
Some of Morath’s signal achievements are in portraiture, including posed images of celebrities as well as fleeting images of anonymous passersby. Her pictures of Boris Pasternak's home, Pushkin's library, Chekhov's house, Mao Zedong's bedroom, as well as artists' studios and cemetery memorials, are permeated with the spirit of invisible people still present. The writer Philip Roth, whom Morath photographed in 1965, described her as "the most engaging, sprightly, seemingly harmless voyeur I know. If you're one of her subjects, you hardly know your guard is down and your secret recorded until it's too late. She is a tender intruder with an invisible camera."
As the scope of her projects grew, Morath prepared extensively by studying the language, art, and literature of a country in order to encounter its culture fully. Although photography was the primary means through which Morath found expression, it was but one of many tools in a kit to which she continued to add throughout her lifetime. In addition to the many languages in which she was fluent, Morath was also a prolific diary and letter-writer; her dual gift for words and pictures that made her unusual among her colleagues. Morath wrote extensively, and often amusingly, about her photographic subjects. Although she rarely published these texts during her lifetime, Morath's posthumous publications have focused upon this aspect of her work, bringing her photographs together with journal writings, caption notes, and other archival materials relating to her various projects.
During the 1980s and '90s, Morath continued to pursue both assignments and independent projects. The film Copyright by Inge Morath was made by German filmmaker Sabine Eckhard in 1992, and was one of several films selected for a presentation of Magnum Films at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007. Eckhard filmed Morath at home and in her studio in Connecticut, and in New York and Paris with her colleagues, including Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and others. In 2002, working with film director Regina Strassegger, Morath fulfilled a long-held wish to revisit the lands of her ancestors, along the borderlands of Styria and Slovenia. This mountainous region, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had become the faultline between two conflicting ideologies after World War II and until 1991, when attempts at rapprochement lead to conflict on both sides of the border. The book Last Journey (2002), and Strasseger's film Grenz Räume (Border Space, 2002), document Morath's visits to her homeland during the final years of her life.
In honor of their colleague, the members of Magnum Photos established the Inge Morath Award in 2002. The annual award is administrated by the Inge Morath Foundation, and is given to a woman photographer under the age of 30, to support work towards the completion of a long-term project.
Photography is a strange phenomenon... You trust your eye and cannot help but bare your soul.
Inge Morath was, above all, a traveller... [H]er approach to a story was 'to let it grow', without any apparent concern for narrative structure, trusting in her experience and interests to shape her work rather than in an editorial formula... She unsentimentally made pictures that were guided by her relationship to a place. These relationships were invariably intimate and long-lasting; she regularly revisited the places she chose to photograph and learned the relevant language... Similarly, her photographs of people are born of intimacy without sentimentality. It is as if the presentation of relationships takes the place of story structure, and her work is best understood as an ongoing series of observations of the life she made for herself.