Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Wright Morris

“The photograph, after all, is just a photograph. Words will determine its meaning and status.” – Wright Morris

Wright Marion Morris was an American novelist, photographer, and essayist born in 1910. He is known for his portrayals of the people and artefacts of the Great Plains in words and pictures, as well as for experimenting with narrative forms. He adopted an experimental approach to photography, seeking very early to “capture the essence of what is visible”. 

Wright Morris spent his childhood shunted between Nebraska, Chicago, his uncles’ farms and accompanying his father on long trips across America. At 23, he travelled through Europe and on his return decided to dedicate himself entirely to writing. He quickly realised that photography could seize what he had until then been attempting to “capture in words”. This formal research led to his first “photo-text”, The Inhabitants (1946), in which fictional texts are paired with photographs mainly taken in Nebraska, where he grew up.

Unlike his fiction which often focuses on flamboyant characters, his photographs are practically devoid of figures. And yet lots of life quietly leaks out between the chairs (omnipresent), mirrors, cars or even wooden architecture (fundamental). It is as if his photographs are rooted in the land, imbued with a disarming simplicity while retaining the enigmatic character of places and objects laid bare, with no human presence to bring them alive. Bard of the intimate, Wright Morris makes the invisible visible and this paradox is probably the most noble intention in photography.

Tombstone, Arizona, 1940 © Estate of Wright Morris

 

The Home Place, Norfolk, Nebraska, 1947

 

The Home Place, Norfolk, Nebraska, 1947 © Estate of Wright Morris

 

Morris moved to Chicago in 1924. Later that year, he accompanied his father on a road trip to the west coast that formed the basis for his first novel, My Uncle Dudley. He also lived briefly with his uncle in Texas before enrolling in Pacific Union College in California. He graduated from Pomona College in 1933. 

Following college, Morris traveled through Europe on a “wanderjahr,” which he later fictionalised in Cause for Wonder. From 1944 to 1954, Morris lived in Philadelphia. From 1954–1962, he divided his time between California and Mexico. In 1963, he accepted a teaching position at San Francisco State College. He retired from teaching in 1975.

Morris won the National Book Award for The Field of Vision in 1956. His final novel, Plains Song won the American Book Award in 1981. He developed close friendships with several other American authors, most notably John O’Hara and Thornton Wilder, and was a pall bearer at O’Hara’s funeral in 1970. He also conducted a weekly correspondence with Scottish author Muriel Spark from 1962 until his death.

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