On Wright Morris and Photo-Texts

Wright Morris, White-Sided Grain Elevator, Nebraska, 1940

 

Born in the Great Plains state of Nebraska, Wright Morris was a pioneer of what he called “photo-texts,” books that combine his photographs and words— most notably The Inhabitants (1946), The Home Place (1948), and God’s Country and My People (1968). More often than not, he focused on his home state, creating a unique and symbiotic relationship between his writings and his 4×5 images: “Two separate mediums are employed for two distinct views,” Wright said in an interview. “Only when refocused in the mind’s eye will the third view result.”

Beginning in 1934, Morris explored this new creative territory steadily for some fifteen years. At their best, Morris’s paired words and photographs do indeed shine. The lyrical text below accompanies his photograph White-Sided Grain Elevator, Nebraska, 1940, in The Home Place, which touches on the widespread loss of farms in drought-ravaged eastern Nebraska during the Great Depression:

There’s a simple reason for grain elevators, as there is for everything, but the force behind the reason, the reason for the reason, is the land and the sky. There’s too much sky out here, for one thing, too much horizontal, too many lines without stops, so that the exclamation, the perpendicular, had to come. . . . On a good day, with a slanting sun, a man can walk to the edge of his town and see the light on the next town, ten miles away. In the sea of corn, that flash of light is like a sail. It reminds a man the place is still inhabited.

 As someone who also interweaves words and photographs in my books, I’ve learned from Morris’s photo-texts that looking closely at a landscape—especially one where you’ve lived or spent considerable time—is akin to a kind of listening. If you look deeply enough—especially in a place rich in memory and poetic associations—you may very well begin to hear what you see. This became evident to me while working on my third book, My Dakota. South Dakota, where I came of age, is, like its southern neighbor Nebraska, a sparsely populated state of disappearing family farms and struggling small towns, a place dominated by space and silence and solitude, by brutal wind and extreme weather. In 2006, after my brother died unexpectedly of heart failure, it felt like all I could do was drive through the prairies and badlands of South Dakota and photograph. And I began to wonder: Does loss have its own geography?

Look closely enough and you can almost hear the low hum of loss in many of Morris’s unpeopled photographs, which seem uncannily filled with the presence of others, reflecting the sensibility of someone well acquainted with absence. And from time to time, Morris’s words address his deepest loss, which lies beneath much of his work—the death of his mother Grace, a farmer’s daughter, six days after his birth—including this passage from God’s Country and My People:

I have not forgotten. She sees the new world through my eyes. . . . The landscape lies within me and proves to be a fiction that resists erosion.

Perhaps Morris’s words “enhance and enlarge” his photographs by evoking a different kind of landscape. Ultimately, could it be that Morris’s writing—the second of his “two distinct views”—creates a kind of private and interior Nebraska, one that suggests what all that emptiness feels like to those of us who grew up on the Great Plains, a place that was also growing up in us?—Rebecca Norris Webb, from Pier 24’s Photographers Looking at Photographs: 75 Pictures from the Pilara Foundation, edited by Allie Haeusslein, published by Pier 24, 2019.

For more about the new book, including how to order it online, please follow this link.

 

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