Academic journal article Afterimage

Wright Morris: Reinventing a Photographer. (Feature)

Academic journal article Afterimage

Wright Morris: Reinventing a Photographer. (Feature)

Article excerpt

Distinctly American: The Photography of Wright Morris

By Alan Trachtenberg, with an essay by Ralph Lieberman London: Merrell Publishers, 2002 140 pp./$50.00 (hb)

The Home Place

Wright Morris, with an introduction by John Hollander Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999 178 pp./$12.00 (sb)

Distinctly American: The Photography of Wright Morris

Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University

Palo Alto, California

October 9, 2002-January 12, 2003

Joslyn Art Museum

Omaha, Nebraska

February 15-May 11, 2003

Pomona College Museum of Art

Pomona, California

October 25-December 21, 2003

A writer's writer and a photographer's photographer, Wright Morris (1910-1998) was twice cursed and doubly blessed. When he is remembered, it is for his many novels--19 between 1942 and '80, earning him the National Book Award (for Field of Vision) in 1957 and the American Book Award for Fiction (for Plains Song, his last novel) in 1981--or For the apparently documentary photographs he made between 1934 and '54, commemorating structures and artifacts often associated with the Depression. But perhaps his most distinctive contribution to American arts and letters was his first: the multi-media form he adapted from the newly popular photographically illustrated magazines of the '30s to merge his two arts into one.

Morris produced two experimental "photo-texts" in the '40s: The Inhabitants (1946), a study of American character and a sidelong critique of the New Deal he fears may undermine it, in which photographs of rural American ruins appear alongside prose poems, often character sketches that sound like offstage voices; and The Home Place (1948), a homespun yet formally complex novel with photographs facing each page of text, based on the return of a native much like the author to his aunt and uncle's decrepit Nebraska farm. In both cases Morris insisted the photographs were not illustrations to his prose. Rather, they were alternatives. Together he hoped the pairings would engender a "third view" in his reader/viewers' minds. (1) These modernist, multi-media experiments--which build on, but also confound, the taste for the documentary literature and photography so prevalent at the time--resemble stilled cinema more than any other art. As novelist Charles Baxter has noted, stillness was Morris' subject, (2) notably the stillborn pioneer culture of his native Nebraska, where the homesteader's American dream was visibly in decline by the time he arrived on the scene.

To the extent The Inhabitants had peers, its large size meant they were art books as well as magazines. But the tightly cropped photographs in The Home Place typically bleed off all four sides of the page, not just two, making it look and feel much like an ordinary novel. "These mutilations removed them.., from the context of artworks... and presented them as "things" and artifacts," Morris later explained. (3) They are not photographs, his reader/viewers are asked to believe, but relics of the decayed farm itself. Remember James Agee's astonishing claim at the outset of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (his photo-text collaboration with Walker Evans first excerpted alongside a selection of Morris' "Inhabitants" in the 1940 New Directions annual), "If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs. . . records of speech... phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement." (4) But The Home Place is a novel, and as such it makes different claims on the imagination, however "documentary" its style. Engaging the photo-text involves entering an epistemological relationship with the photographs as well as an aesthetic one. They attest to the reality of the fiction--a conundrum typical of Morris' obliquely autobiographical art. He is the Proust of the plains, and photographs are his madeleines, his time capsules, sometimes, inadvertently, his time bombs. …

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