New York

Wright Morris

Witkin Gallery

Wright Morris is a photographer not unlike Robert Frank in temperament. So was Walker Evans. Evans often said that photography is by nature a literary art, or at least an art for which a literary turn of mind provides a ready instinct. Morris is of course more celebrated as a writer than a photographer. (His current novel, Plains Song, has been nominated for an American Book Award this year.) And it was through writing that he originally turned to photography. When he came back from a year in Europe in 1934, he kept a journal that soon moved from his trip and the present to reminiscences of the Midwest, in which he grew up. As this transition occurred, Morris concentrated on rendering his memories with as much immediacy as a direct perception would have. Going back over an entry in that journal, a description of a farm woman throwing out dirty water in a side yard, Morris recalled,

The language is deliberately minimal. Time has not stopped, but the movements are slow enough to be photographed. The tableau is that of a still life. The writer wants a distillation, a decisive moment, in which the words themselves continue the movement, the narrative. I am well into a volume of these impressions before I ‘see’ what it is I am doing. Using words, I am making pictures. Why has it not crossed my mind to take them?

Morris’ description of his own prose, which seems to me very good, might serve as well for his photographs. The recurrence of the word, “still”—first in “still life,” then in “distillation”—catches the spirit of his writing, and the claim that “the words themselves continue the movement, the narrative” is equally true of the pictures. In them we feel that life has indeed been stilled, and not only by the camera but also by some passing over of time itself which has gone on to other realities and left behind the America Morris photographed. The photographs only take notice of what has already happened. They “continue . . . the narrative,” following it through, imaginatively, to its conclusion. What saves the photographs from mere nostalgia is that they are as austere and rigorous as the facts they assert. Morris preferred working in the hard, bright, horizontal light of winter. In this light, the simple buildings of the Nebraska plains stand out against the empty landscape and sky with a severity that seems to be postponing oblivion. It is as if the way of life that the scene contains were struggling against extinction.

The feeling the photographs contain, like the light, has an extraordinary flatness. This is what reminds me of Frank. Morris occasionally photographed the same subjects as Frank—barbershop interiors or juke boxes—but his pictures rarely have people in them and never any of the wild, gestural quality of Frank’s. Nonetheless, like Frank’s, they suggest a possible violence beneath the quietness, the apparent deadness, of American life. The stillness is felt to be a repression from which the raw energy of light might burst forth at any moment, as it does in Morris’ Ceremony in Lone Tree. This novel, based partly on fact, on the Midwest murder spree of Charles Starkweather, is perhaps Morris’ best. It was published at the end of the ’50s, around the same time as Frank’s The Americans, which is not just an historical coincidence.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.