“They Spoke to Me, or Did Not Speak:” Wright Morris’s Images of America

April 20– July 25, 2010 —

In the preface to the second edition of his book The Inhabitants, Wright Morris wrote, “Doors and windows, gates, stoops, samples of litter, assorted junk, anything that appeared to have served its purpose… In the matter of selection of such objects, I relied entirely on my feelings about them: They spoke to me, or did not speak.”

Wright Morris is recognized as an important American author with twenty novels, six collections of short fiction, and four autobiographical volumes to his credit. He fathered two “photo-texts” – The Inhabitants, 1946, and The Home Place, 1948. These works in particular are sublime in that they reflect Morris’s belief that a photograph can speak eloquently on its own, and in a way that was equal to the written word. His photographs were not illustrations, but a complementary, singular message beyond his words.

Taken during his travels throughout the United States, the photographs in this exhibition (Morris questioned the use of the term “images” as an adequate description for his works) are selected from the Museum of Nebraska Art’s collection of 130 Morris silver prints. Nearly all of the pieces were drawn together and printed for a 1975 exhibition at Lincoln’s Sheldon Museum of Art. At that time, Morris was a novelist-in-residence and visiting professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Friend James Alinder, then director of the University’s photography department, printed the photographs under Morris’s direct supervision using his negatives dating from 1936 to 1950.

Wright Morris’s photography speaks to us. Clinically, without emotion, we can recognize the innate elements and principles that comprise the structure of everything we see. Within these photographs, we recognize the presence of a variety of elements: line, shape, space, value, and simulated texture. Without thought, and on a purely anthropomorphic level, we can identify the principles within the photographs: emphasis, balance, harmony, variety, movement, proportion, and unity. These aspects are part of our human condition; indeed, they are universal components. They are fundamental to our perception of beauty and the sensation of attraction regardless of our cognizance.

On another level, we find that these photographs represent our shared experiences and American culture. We all bear witness to an abandoned farmhouse set in a silent, desultory landscape. We are collectively haunted by the sightless windows of a structure that once bustled with prosperity. We’ve wondered at the tenacity of human beings to inhabit places long uninhabitable. And we’ve let our minds clear as we’ve stood, mesmerized, at the beauty of something that was never before beautiful. Our memories and experiences are not so different from those of Wright Morris, sixty-odd years after his photographs were taken.

As evident in his art, Morris had a keen interest in that which was used, and used, and used. In our contemporary society characterized as “throwaway,” we still share the need to keep and remember some elements of our collective past. We save the broken rocker that belonged to auntie, and we revel in remembering stories about the row house where great-grandfather was born. These stories are not so different from those told by Wright Morris’s photography. Our common, human agenda inspires us to love not only our own memories, but those of our human family as well.