A to Z of Photography: Inge Morath and Minolta

A to Z of Photography: Inge Morath and Minolta

With M we reach a significant milestone in the A to Z of Photography as this is the halfway mark. So far "Bronica and Burtynsky" and "Fujifilm" have been the most read with the "Family of Man" and "Image Stabilization and Into the Jaws of Death" languishing at the bottom of the popularity charts! Onwards then to Inge Morath and Minolta.

Inge Morath

Inge Morath was born in 1923 to Austrian parents who, as scientists, worked in various laboratories across Europe, before moving to Berlin in the late 1930s. Unlike many of her (slightly older) contemporaries, she remained in Nazi Germany during World War 2, entering Berlin University in 1941 where she studied languages learning French, English, and Romanian, to which she would later add Spanish, Russian, and Chinese. Toward the end of the war she fled back to Austria where she worked as a translator in war-torn Vienna and then as the Austrian correspondent for Heute magazine. It was here that she encountered the photographer Ernst Haas where they worked collaboratively for Heute. In 1949 they were jointly invited by Robert Capa to join the newly formed Magnum Photos in Paris where she became an editor. Here she handled the contact sheets of work submitted by their members and where her visual literacy was first developed. Remarkably, she didn't pick up a camera until 1951 and then discovered her calling.

She married British journalist Lionel Birch, moved to London, apprenticed under Simon Guttman, then editor of Picture Post, before divorcing Birch in 1953 and moving back to Paris. She presented her first work to Capa who hired her at Magnum taking on the stories the other photographers didn't want. In 1955 she became a full member of Magnum (one of the first women) subsequently traveling widely and covering assignments for the likes of Vogue, Holiday, and Paris Match (samples of her work are available at Magnum). She also covered motion picture movie sets and worked for the director John Huston. Huston later said of her:

[she] is the high priestess of photography. She has the rare ability to penetrate beyond surfaces and reveal what makes her subject tick

In 1960 she worked again for Huston on the set of The Misfits photographing Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable and it was here that she met the playwright Arthur Miller (at the end of his marriage to Monroe). They married in 1962 and remained so until her death in 2002. She worked closer to home whilst raising a family, although still traveled including projects with Miller himself. She was an active photographer right up until her death from cancer. The Inge Morath Foundation now manages an award in her name which is "given to a woman photographer under thirty years of age, to assist in the completion of a long term documentary project." View her work because it shows a beautiful simplicity, a humanism, and a connection with its subject. In short, there is a visual poetry that takes practice and something a little bit extra. It will help you grow as a photographer.


Minolta was founded in Osaka, Japan, in 1928 by Kazuo Tashima, marketing its first camera, the Nifcarette, in 1929. This was a folding camera, co-designed with two German engineers. The body was made in Japan, with the lenses and shutters imported from Germany, shooting 4x6.5cm exposures on 127 film. This was followed by a twin lens reflex (TLR) in 1937 (the Minolta Flex) and a 35mm rangefinder in 1947 that used the Leica 39mm screw mount. The latter was a successful camera with over 40,000 units sold during its 12 year manufacturing run.

In 1958 Minolta release their first 35mm SLR, the SR-2. The SR-mount was the first bayonet designed mount (beating Nikon's F-mount to market by one year) and was used for all of Minolta's manual focus lenses. Research and development continued apace, with the SR-3 taking an exposure meter and through the lens (TTL) metering introduced with the 1966 SR-T. Coupled with the remarkable cameras was a range of high quality Rokkor lenses which Minolta designed and manufactured.

The SR-2 was world-leading in its day and began a highly successful period for Minolta that made it, arguably, the most innovative camera manufacturer of its time. Some of the firsts (or early adoptions) included a commercially successful autofocus SLR, multimode metering, and full program mode.

This success led to a formal working partnership with Leica in 1972 who desperately needed expertise in in-camera electronics. The Leica CL, an affordable M, was the first fruits of this labor which was built by Minolta to Leica specifications. The Leica R3 followed, which was a rebadged Minolta XE-1 with Leica lens mount, viewfinder, and metering system. It was a commercial success and was followed by the Leica R4 which was an XD-11.

The 1980s saw Minolta transition to auto-focus cameras with the Maxxum range (Dynax in Europe and Alpha in Japan) and low-cost entry level 35mm models. The Maxxum 7000 is a good exemplar of the new range which switched from metal bodies, and analog controls, to plastic shells, electronic buttons, and LCD displays. With AF came a new lens mount — the A-mount — that used TTL phase-detection focusing and metering, autoexposure, and predictive focusing. The 1990s saw continued developed of the Maxxum line introducing a range of firsts such as eye-activated startup, interactive viewfinder LCD display, and wireless TTL flash control.

Their first foray into digital cameras was with the DiMage point-and-shoot and bridge camera range (of which I owned one!). In 2003 they merged with Konica in order to bolster their market position and try to push in to the professional sector occupied by Canon and Nikon. Expectation was that Konica Minolta (KM) would fully enter the digital SLR market. This didn't happen until 2005 with the Maxxum 5D and later that year KM entered a strategic partnership with Sony before entirely exiting the camera market in 2006 with all remaining assets being transferred to Sony. That year the Alpha100 was released with a succession of Minolta based cameras through to 2010 when Sony began to pivot to mirrorless. So was born the Sony A-mount and now Minolta lives on in this forlorn, abandoned, lens system that is used in Sony's SLT cameras, but since the development of the E-mount have received little attention.

For such a technologically focussed company that developed exciting camera products it was a low-profile exit. KM, however, remains an imaging company in the copier, laser printer, and digital print markets that now employs over 40,000 people worldwide and has a turnover of $10B.

Other Ms

Other M's that didn't make the cut in this article include Mamiya, Minox, Metz, Manfrotto, motion blur, multiple exposure, Migrant Mother (image), Marlboro Marine (image), Linda McCartney, Don McCullin, macro photography, Magnum, Man Ray, Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, metadata, Joel Meyerowitz, Lee Miller, mise-en-scene, Mission Heliographique, Tina Modotti, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, MoMA, Eadweard Maybridge, and Carl Mydans.

A to Z Catchup

Alvarez-Bravo and Aperture

Bronica and Burtynsky

Central Park and Lewis Carroll

Daguerrotype and Frederick Douglass

Exposure and Harold Edgerton


Family of Man

Nan Goldin and the Golden Triangle

Hyper-lapse and Horst P. Horst

Image Stabilization and Into the Jaws of Death

JPEG and William Jackson

Lenna and Leica

Lead image a composite courtesy of Skitterphoto and brenkee via Pixabay used under Creative Commons and Wikipedia, in the Public Domain. Body images courtesy of the Wikipedia and in the Public Domain and used under Creative Commons.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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