(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

At the time of The Inhabitants, Morris had not yet read Henry James’s The American Scene (1907), but he later found in it an articulation of his purpose for his first photo-text. Morris admits that he is, in James’s words, “subject to the superstition that objects and places, disposed for human use and addressed to it, must have a sense of their own, a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out.” Morris wants his words and photographs to suggest some mystical union between Americans and their artifacts, the voices speaking in the prose passages offering a sense of place, the pictures conveying the lives people lead through their buildings, objects, and landscapes.

In Photographs and Words, Morris explains his method and goal:Rather than ponder the photograph, then describe my impressions, I found in what I had written the verbal images that enhanced, and enlarged upon, the photograph. The unexpected resonance and play between apparent contraries, and unrelated impressions, was precisely what delighted the imagination. . . . In the unanticipated commingling of opposites the element of surprise was life enhancing.

He wants to create a sense of the reality of America that neither words nor pictures could express separately. This reality exists only in the imagination of the reader.

The images in Morris’ photographs are stark and shadowy; they depict an America on the verge of disappearing. Many of the buildings are worn, dilapidated, or abandoned. In one, blowing sand has raised a mound in front of the entrance to a house. Morris offers details such as the peeling wooden steps leading from a city sidewalk to a shabby door. In other photographs, rural dwellings appear lost and forlorn amid a lonely landscape.

Morris emphasizes decay in order to depict a community left behind by changing social and economic conditions. The buildings and objects—buckets, tires, swings—are also worn to communicate the sense of use, the human element. These things are not important in themselves but for what they say about the inhabitants, the people whose lives revolved around them. The past is a critical element in Morris’ fiction; his characters are often trapped there, limited by events from their earlier days or by their conception of an idealized past. Morris wants photographs like those in The Inhabitants to suggest “the dominance of the past in all aspects of the present, the palpable sense of time as a presence.”

According to Morris, he photographed only those things that spoke to him, that evoked time and lives lived. He considers artifacts to be handiwork in two senses: People created them, and they have been shaped further through the experience of use. As he wrote in 1951, “I found these objects beautiful because of their saturation with experience.” Morris believes that the mystical overtones in his photographs are emphasized because there is no direct connection between words and pictures, forcing the reader to be more attentive to the images.

For similar reasons, people are not directly present in Morris’...

(The entire section is 1283 words.)