Margaret Morton, photographer at home with the homeless, dies at 71

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Margaret Morton, photographer at home with the homeless, dies at 71
“Mack’s First House, East River 1992,” from Margaret Morton’s book “Fragile Dwelling” (2000). Ms. Morton explored New York City’s hidden encampments and became an advocate for the homeless. Photo: Margaret Morton.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- From her apartment on East 10th Street in Manhattan, Margaret Morton had a front row view of the homeless encampments that engulfed Tompkins Square Park in the late 1980s. As she walked to work at Cooper Union, where she was a professor, she began to photograph these improvised structures, showing the ways people were moved to make themselves at home even when they had so little.

When the city bulldozed the park in late 1989, scattering those who lived there, Morton followed them and spent the next 10 years documenting their world and that of others on the margins, not only telling their stories but also advocating for their welfare. The author Philip Lopate, who described her as “our modern-day Jacob Riis,” said recently that “she pulled off a rare combination of socially engaged photography that was also formally exquisite.”

Morton died on June 27 at her home. She was 71. Her sister, Judith Orsine, confirmed the death and said Morton was being treated for a form of leukemia.

A slight woman who her gallerist, Jay Deutsch, said in her youth resembled singer Emmylou Harris, Morton scrambled through open manholes, shinnied under fences and made her way to the edges of the city — and society — to her subjects’ habitats.

For years, she followed a community living in a railroad tunnel under Riverside Park. The Mole People, as they sometimes called themselves, found privacy, protection from the elements and fellowship in their dim, dank world, pierced by shafts of light from above. They scavenged clothes, furniture and water, and turned cinder-block storage units into cozy dwellings. Their unofficial leader was Bernard, who served “tunnel stew” at weekly potlucks and tended a lemon seed that sprouted into a plant in a single column of sunshine in front of his home.

In 1995, Amtrak, which owned the tunnel, sealed off the entrances and threatened to evict the Mole People, whose numbers had grown as homeless camps in the park above were razed. Morton, Bernard and the city’s Coalition for the Homeless rallied to find alternative housing through federal subsidies.

Not all the tunnel folk were willing or able, but there were some victories. Jose Camacho, a man who decorated his plywood home with a Seurat poster and made his bed every day for the 13 years he lived underground, secured a sunny one-bedroom in the Bronx.

Yet housing officials initially claimed Camacho and others were not “housing ready,” as Nina Bernstein reported in The New York Times — a charge that infuriated Morton, who brandished her book about the tunnel dwellers to administrators as she argued on their behalf.

“These people have completely built a home, furnished it, with books on the nightstand,” she said. “How could they not be housing ready?”

Margaret Willis was born on Oct. 16, 1948, in Akron, Ohio. Her mother, Ruth (McFarland) Willis, was an elementary-school teacher; her father, William Arthur Willis, taught high school industrial arts. She graduated from Kent State University in 1970, in a ceremony that Orsine, her sister and only immediate survivor, recalled was overseen by government tanks.

In 1977, she received an MFA from the Yale University School of Art, after which she taught graphic design there. In 1980 she moved to New York City and began teaching at Cooper Union; she had become a full-time faculty member by 1985. A tenured professor, she taught graphic design and photography and was also the director of the school’s off-campus programs.

She married Thomas Judson Morton, an architect, in 1971. The marriage ended in divorce.

Morton’s work was neither cloying nor gruesome. In meticulously composed images, she showed the pride and even joy her subjects found in making their homesteads, the deeply human need to nest and embellish regardless of circumstance.

Her photographs of the gardens made by homeless people under the city’s bridges and in vacant lots were shown at Wave Hill as part of a project that became her first book, “Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives” (1993), with text by Diana Balmori.

The critic Vivien Raynor noted: “The pictures in the show are devoid of sentimentality; yet they are radical for proposing that to be out on the street is not necessarily to be insane. And they do it by emphasizing the ordinary: One man leans on a hoe chatting with his neighbor just like any other householder, another man relaxes by his homemade pond (complete with goldfish) as if he were waiting to be served a drink, poolside.”

Morton’s other books include “The Tunnel: The Underground Homeless of New York City” (1995) and “Fragile Dwelling” (2000). Her “Glass House” (2004) documented the lives and rituals of a group of teenage squatters living in an abandoned glass factory on the Lower East Side.

In 2004, 10 years after police evicted the teenagers, Morton wrote in The Times of how they had fared since. Four had died, another was living in a forest in Maui, one was studying public law. The building itself had become housing for people with HIV.

“Gentrification has transformed the East Village, erasing nearly every memory of its history as a refuge for ethnic groups and the radical fringe,” Morton wrote. “Although I did not realize it at the time, the story of ‘Glass House’ marks the end of an era.”

Her last book of photographs, “Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan,” was published in 2014. In recent years she had been working on a series about the James A. Farley Post Office across from Penn Station, the 1912 colossus being partly gutted to make way for the station’s expansion.

“Her pictures are even stranger and more distant than some of the 19th-century photographers,” said author and essayist Luc Sante, who teaches Morton’s work in his class “Cities in Photography” at Bard College.

Noting how the worlds she chronicled have been “swept away by the tide of history,” Sante said his students were always stunned by “the idea of the squat, the idea that the Lower East Side had just been abandoned.

“She chronicles it with such extraordinary sensitivity and comprehensiveness,” he continued. “Every aspect — the good and the bad and the hard work and also the chaos. It’s a lasting memorial to this vanished slice of time, and also in a larger way to how people deal with cities.”

When Camacho, the onetime tunnel resident, died in 1999 at 54, his long-homeless state was a hurdle to a proper burial. After the article by Bernstein about his plight appeared in The Times, donations — of money and a plot in a cemetery in Valhalla, New York — flooded in.

Morton and others organized a funeral at the Ascension Church on the Upper West Side. Morton delivered the eulogy, recalling her old friend as a gentle person who asked for nothing and took pride in the small domestic rituals of his tunnel life — sweeping his tiny plywood porch, making his bed, bathing using his coffee-can shower.

Six altar boys sang for Camacho, and the organist played “Jerusalem, My Happy Home.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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