Martha Holmes, 83; Known for Candid Photos, Many Shot for Life Magazine

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Times Staff Writer

Martha Holmes, one of the first female photographers on the staff of Life magazine, who was known for candid shots of actors, entertainers and other celebrities, has died. She was 83.

Holmes died Sept. 19 at her home in New York City of natural causes, her son-in-law, John Koshel, said this week.

In a career that spanned more than 40 years, Holmes was perhaps best known for an image of artist Jackson Pollock that was later the basis for a commemorative postage stamp.


She was “providing an important glimpse into our history [that] will be a lasting legacy,” Life magazine picture editor Bobbi Baker Burrows said in a statement this week.

Starting in 1944, Holmes was a staff photographer with Life based in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and later New York City. When she left her staff position five years later, she continued to freelance for the magazine.

Early in her career Holmes dressed in skirts and high heels on the job, but a shot she took in 1955 changed that. She saw a car coming toward her on a New York City street, covered with Brooklyn Dodgers fans who rode on top of it. Their team had just won the World Series against the cross-town rival New York Yankees.

“I felt like Ginger Rogers, running backward on heels,” Holmes said about getting into position for the shot. From then on she wore culottes or slacks and comfortable shoes.

In Hollywood, Holmes photographed celebrities for Life and worked on assignment taking still photographs on movie sets for such films as “Scarlet Street” (1945), directed by Fritz Lang, and “Lady in the Lake” (1947), adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel.

In Washington, starting in 1947, she covered government hearings. One of her best-known photographs from that period shows Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye and Lauren Bacall listening intently to a witness during a session of the House Un-American Activities Committee. At the time, prominent members of the Hollywood community were under scrutiny for possible communist activities.


“That was the beginning of my fringe shooting,” Holmes said of that shot in an interview for “Life Photographers, What They Saw” (1998) by John Loengard. “It’s the reaction of the audience,” she said she was looking for when she turned her camera onto the crowd.

Holmes took her widely publicized photograph of Pollock in his studio, during a day she spent with him and his wife, artist Lee Krasner, at their Long Island, N.Y., home. It shows Pollock hunched over a large canvas laid out on the floor, with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He holds a paint can in one hand and a loaded brush in the other. The photograph accompanied an Aug. 8, 1949, feature story about him in Life.

Her favorite photo, Holmes said, was one she took in 1949 of popular singer Billy Eckstine surrounded by fans. One young woman smiles in delight as she puts her head on his shoulder.

An editor at Life didn’t want to run the photograph because the female fans were white and Eckstine was black, Holmes later recalled. “It was before the civil rights movement got going,” she said. The magazine’s founder, Henry Luce, was called in. “Mr. Luce looked at it and he said, ‘Run it,’ ” Holmes recalled. “I am very proud of that.”

Holmes was born in Louisville, Ky., and dropped out of the University of Louisville to take a job as an assistant in the photo lab of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Some months later she was offered a job at Life.

In 1952 she married Arthur Waxman, who later became the manager of the Actors Studio in New York City.


She continued working freelance most of her life. For more than 30 years she was the house photographer for the American Place Theatre in New York City, where her pictures of actors in performances are displayed on the walls of the lobby.

“She had a very keen eye and captured a photograph at just the right moment,” said Wynn Handman, the theater’s artistic director. “She was always smiling, a real smile, from the inside.”

She is survived by daughters Anne Holmes Waxman and Terry Holmes Waxman Koshel, as well as two grandchildren. Her husband died in 1998.

Donations may be made in her name to Long Island University, C.W. Post Campus, 720 Northern Blvd., Brookville, NY 11548. Please direct the donation to the film department for the Martha Holmes Award.

Her photograph of Pollock renewed interest in her work when it was used as the basis for a 33-cent stamp issued in 1999.

Illustrator Howard Koslow was hired by the U.S. Postal Service to make a painting of the Holmes photograph but was told to leave out the cigarette in the interest of public health messages about the dangers of smoking.