Martha Holmes (b. Louisville, Ky., Feb. 7, 1923) was on the staff of LIFE for five years in the 1940s and worked for three decades as a freelancer for the magazine, producing work that, all these years later, remains remarkable for its variety. At the same time, a good many of her pictures, whether she was shooting pro athletes, artists, movie stars, animals or the House un-American Activities Committee, somehow manage to look and feel Holmesian—that is, amid the variety, her pictures often share a certain quality that stamps them as recognizably hers, and hers alone.
It’s not that Holmes imposed herself on her subjects. Far from it! Instead, her portraits of people and places routinely allowed the essence of whatever it was she was shooting to shine through. That one can view her disparate—in intent and in execution—portraits of, say, Jackson Pollock, the actress Joan Fontaine and a sextet of octogenarian singers, and find something familiar and similar in all of them, speaks to a talent that was certainly not lacking in confidence, or in vision.
Speaking of Pollock, and Holmes’ most famous picture of the artist (left, from 1949), it’s worth noting that 50 years after it was made, in 1999, the U.S. Postal Service used her image as the model for a 33-cent stamp — although, perhaps unsurprisingly, the stamp was issued without a cigarette dangling from the artist’s lips.
Holmes herself, meanwhile, was hardly one to stand on ceremony or try, as a LIFE employee, to throw her weight around when it came to assignments.
One story has it that, while she was working for LIFE in California in the late 1940s, she was sent off to do a shoot on the Havasu Indians in the Grand Canyon region of the American southwest. Perfectly illustrating that even the greatest magazines sometimes run on completely erroneous assumptions, someone at LIFE evidently thought she’d be perfect for the Grand Canyon shoot because, with her Kentucky heritage, surely she must have horse-riding in her blood, and in the canyonlands she’d likely be on horseback a good percentage of the time.
As it turns out, Holmes had never even ridden a horse—but she quickly learned how while on assignment.
In 1952, she married Arthur Waxman, who worked at NBC in New York and whom she met while on a shoot for LIFE. The wedding was photographed by the legendary Alfred Eisenstaedt, and was “one of the most photographed wedding in years” according to one newspaper story at the time.
Martha Holmes died at her home in Manhattan, at the age of 83, in September 2006.