It was one of the more playful spreads in Life magazine. In its December 2, 1957 issue, the magazine featured a one-page story, humorously titled ‘High-paid llama in big city’. The story covered different television animals—from dogs and cats to a kangaroo and a miniature bull—but its highlight was Linda the Llama, as photographed by Inge Morath.
The caption read the llama was enroute to make a television appearance, but Morath recalled differently in her notes: “Linda, the Lama [sic] rides home via Broadway. She is just coming home from a television show in New York’s A.B.C. studios and now takes a relaxed and long-necked look at the lights of one of the world’s most famous streets.” Her contact sheets showed that Morath was already photographing the llama inside the studio, and the Inge Morath Foundation suggests the photographer might have acquainted herself with the llama and the trainer at least a year ahead of their photo-session.
The photo is undoubtedly one of the most famous photos by Inge Morath, one of the greatest photographers of her generation, and a typical one for her too. Her photographs were often surreal – Chinese soldiers climbing a large statue of Buddha, a driver with a poodle on his passenger seat, frantically dancing girls from Iraq to Iberia – a whimsy shaped by her experiences growing up in Austria during and after the Second World War: “Everyone was dead or half dead. I walked by dead horses, women with dead babies in their arms. I can’t photograph war for this reason.”
After the war, she worked for the Picture Post in London and Magnum in Paris, where she was an assistant to ever-demanding Henri Cartier-Bresson. She travelled to Iran for Holiday magazine sporting the traditional chador and traversing the vast country alone most of the time. In 1956 – a year before she took the llama photo – Morath came to New York for the first time, although her arrival did not go smoothly. At the height of the Red Scare, she was detained at the airport for carrying a book published by a leftish bookshop. Later, she settled in America, marrying the playwright Arthur Miller, whom she met on the set of The Misfits, whilst she was covering his first wife, Marilyn Monroe.