Mt. Airy teacher and photographer saw beauty everywhere

by LenLear

“Since Martha’s death I have received so many letters about how she has impacted people’s lives. I never really knew that until now. She was a very generous person. They talk about the light in their eyes. People wrote that they wished they could see the world through their eyes. She could see the beauty in everything, especially in nature. A lot of the people who wrote said she was the most influential teacher they’ve ever had.”

Those words were spoken last week in a local interview by Jeffrey Fuller, an art dealer in West Mt. Airy, about his wife, Martha Madigan, who died at their home of metastatic lung cancer on Monday, August 22, at the age of 72.

Madigan joined Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 1979, became director of the photography program, and then spent more than four decades as a teacher, curator, and lecturer. From 2004 to 2006 and again in 2018 she taught at Temple University Rome.

Madigan is best known for her exquisite solar photograms and public artworks that relate to, capture or transform aspects of nature and the human figure. She also researched the history of photographic light-sensitive materials.

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Madigan was the modern pioneer of “cameraless photography”. As a teenager, according to her daughter Grace, she built her first true pinhole camera, which began her lifelong fascination with photography. Her work has been exhibited internationally and is in the collections of major museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and in private collections and institutions worldwide.

While teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, Madigan was asked to photograph Alice Neel, Louise Nevelson, and other prominent female artists in the Oval Office with President Jimmy Carter. She has also been commissioned to produce several public art projects in Philadelphia, including “Elements” at the Wells Fargo Center and murals celebrating the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

“My work is a direct experience of the light and fragility of life through the seasons,” Madigan once wrote. “Nature is a great teacher. Nature always reminds me of the abundance and vitality of life, and of death and decay inherent in every living thing.”

Madigan was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1973, at the age of 23, she had her first solo exhibition in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, which launched her career as an artist. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madigan began teaching art at a private school. In her evenings, she worked to prepare her portfolio for admission to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she graduated in 1978 and earned her master’s degree in fine arts.

“I met Martha at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago,” said Fuller, who is a native of Chicago. “We were both 25. I wanted to be an art dealer but wasn’t good enough to be an artist. When I met Martha, it was love at first sight. I dated three or four girlfriends, but after I met Martha, I never called her back.” Madigan was teaching art and photography at a K-12 private school at the time.

In 1979, Madigan and Fuller moved to Philadelphia and settled in West Mt. Airy.

“We fell in love with Wissahickon Drive, Lincoln Drive and Weavers Way,” said Fuller, who has been a working member of the co-op since 1979 and served on the Weavers Way community programs (now Food Moxie) board of directors for six years.

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They also lived in Germantown for a while before finally settling in Elkins Park. But they always maintained a presence in Northwest Philadelphia.

“Martha wanted a studio for large works of art,” Fuller said. “So in 1996 we bought a building on Carpenter Lane off Wayne Avenue and have been using it for auctions and art exhibitions ever since.” (Fuller, an art dealer, is a licensed auctioneer who now mainly does art valuations. At the last auction in the studio West Mt. Airy, he said he sold art to people from 26 countries. He and Martha also host art shows there.)

Madigan devoted herself to her spiritual practice and spent much of her time in ashrams in India and New York.

In addition to her husband and children Daniel, Claire and Grace, Madigan is survived by eight grandchildren, a brother, two sisters and other relatives. A celebration of her life is later held.

Donations on their behalf can be made to Temple’s Photography Department Fund: In Memory of Martha MadiganConwell Hall, 7th Floor, 1801 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19122.

You can reach Len Lear at [email protected]

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