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Helen Balfour Morrison papers

Identifier: Midwest-MS-Morrison

Scope and Content of the Collection

Letters, writings, notebooks, clippings, financial and business records and personal items of Helen Balfour Morrison. Materials document the professional and personal life of Morrison, her family, and collaboration with dancer Sybil Shearer.

Correspondence and writings cover a variety of topics, ranging from family history to Morrison’s professional work in the artistic communities of photography and dance. Personal materials cover Morrison’s marriage to publishing executive Robert Morrison through vital, legal, and financial records, along with a variety of personal keepsakes.


  • Creation: 1906-2001
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1920 - 1984



Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The Helen Balfour Morrison papers are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 1 box at a time (Priority III).

Ownership and Literary Rights

The Helen Balfour Morrison papers are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections at

Biography of Helen Balfour Morrison

American photographer and artist.

Helen Balfour was born in Evanston, Illinois on August 1, 1900 or 1901 to Fannie Lindley and Alexander Balfour. In her later teenage years, Helen took a job in a photography studio to help support the family after the death of her mother. At this studio she learned to use the portrait camera and helped expand the studio’s business with creative ideas of her own. In the 1920s, Helen and her brother Malcolm (“Mac”) started their own commercial photography business in Evanston. She married Robert Bruce Morrison (March 5, 1902 – June 19, 1966), a publishing executive, in 1925 or 1926.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Morrison undertook several photography projects. She is known for her “Great Americans” or “Notable Americans” series, photographing some 200 people, among them Robert Frost, Helen Hayes, Nelson Algren, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Mies van der Rohe, Amelia Earhart, and Jane Addams. During the same time period, Morrison created a series of documentary and artistic photographs of African American communities in Kentucky.

In 1943 she became lighting director and artistic collaborator with modern dancer Sybil Shearer and by the mid-1950s was photographer Shearer exclusively. Her collaboration with Shearer produced a large collection of extraordinary dance photographs and films, as well as an intense and sensitive documentation of Shearer’s life. Their artistic and personal collaborations continued until Helen’s death on November 6, 1984.


3.1 Linear Feet (8 boxes)


Personal and professional papers of American photographer and artist Helen Balfour Morrison. Born in Evanston, Illinois in 1900, Morrison undertook several artistic photography projects that were exhibited throughout the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. Her longtime collaboration with dancer Sybil Shearer involved further artistic endeavors through stage lighting designs and filmmaking.


Papers are organized in the following series:

Series 1: Correspondence, 1906-1984
Boxes 1-3
Series 2: Writings, 1946-1996
Boxes 3-4
Series 3: Business, 1934-1982
Boxes 5-6
Series 2: Personal, 1925-2001
Boxes 6-8

Collection Stack Location

1 38 5


Gift, Morrison-Shearer Foundation, 2016.

Processed by

Catherine Grandgeorge, 2016.

Inventory of the Helen Balfour Morrison papers, 1906-2001, bulk 1920-1984
Catherine Grandgeorge
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2022-11-11: Additional materials integrated into existing folders throughout the collection. Mostly includes correspondence and writings additions.

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States