San Francisco

Wright Morris

Grapestake Gallery

Wright Morris, author of eighteen novels, four books combining photographs and text, and numerous essays, has spent fifty years detailing a rural American way of life that went into decline in the Depression and was all but nonexistent by the end of World War II. Morris found the Depression “spectacularly photogenic,” but in contrast to many of the artists, writers, and photographers of his generation—who shared his subject matter but were of a more political ilk—Morris considered “depressed social reality subordinate to the revelation of experience.” In his most intensive working period, 1938–47, Morris photographed dilapidated barns, grain elevators, and the silent, Hopperesque streets of America’s rural towns with iconic clarity. With the instincts of an August Sander or a Eugène Atget, he created a visual inventory of a landscape on the edge of extinction. These photographs, a visual typology, have formed the settings for the characters that have peopled Morris’ novels for five decades.

In the ’40s Morris published two photo-text books, The Inhabitants and The Home Place. Here image and text are juxtaposed, with an innovative comprehension of the formal characteristics of both mediums: neither is treated as subordinate, and the nuances and subtleties of sequence, counterpoint, and comparison indicate a sensitive and extremely sophisticated use of image and text. Morris’ books initially engendered the distrust of both photographers and writers, who were suspicious of someone as “ambidextrous” as Morris. Confused booksellers did not know how to categorize the books, and Morris pretty much abandoned the format on the advice of his publisher.

Rediscovered for photography in the early ’70s, Morris’ work is now exhibited regularly, and The Inhabitants and The Home Place have been reissued. The publication in 1982 of Photographs & Words, a major monograph produced by Friends of Photography, is a try at garnering Morris more widespread recognition as a photographer. In a lengthy and pleasantly nostalgic introductory essay, Morris places his comparatively brief photographic career within the context of a lifetime devoted to writing; but the lavish printing of the pictures, and their presentation without Morris’ texts, indicate a belief that the photographs can stand alone.

Photographs & Words inadvertently reveals, however, the narrowness of Morris’ oeuvre, and suggests that his subject matter is not terribly distinct from the imagery which the Farm Security Administration photographers made archetypally American in the ’30s. This exhibition, in contrast to Photographs & Words, affords a more insightful and energetic view of Morris’ accomplishments. Approximately fifty prints, sequenced and presented with text panels from God’s Country and My People (a more recent volume), yield a clear sense of the image-to-text relationships Morris explored in the ’30s and ’40s. Interestingly, this exhibition marked the first time Morris’ work had been hung in photo-text format—an indication perhaps that hybridization is still viewed with some suspicion. Yet when Morris is seen from this perspective he is not merely another ’30s photographer, but an innovative and successful precursor to more contemporary investigations into photography, art, and language.

Hal Fischer