The Inhabitants, the first of Morris’s volumes to combine photographs and prose, grew out of his preoccupation with the past. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Morris began writing fiction using simple, compact visual cues to create “still” word pictures. After composing a number of such pictures, he concluded that he might actually photograph what he was describing in order more effectively to capture concrete detail and visible reality. What he was after was the look and feel of a specific time and place. To produce the look, he selected telling photographs from the many he had taken on his travels across the United States. For the feel, he used words. What resulted when Morris imaginatively synthesized his photographs and prose was the most experimental and innovative of Morris’s four “photo-texts.”
Technically, The Inhabitants, through its imaginative fusion of various points of view, anticipates many of the narrative devices Morris later employed in his multivoiced fictions of the 1950’s and 1960’s. As the critic Alan Trachtenberg points out in his 1962 essay, “The Craft of Vision,” the book has a triangular structure that blends three separate strands: two narrative voices and the photographs. Each two-page spread has a monologue that announces the theme or argument of the book and occasionally meditates on the question of what an inhabitant is; a second voice—sometimes third person, sometimes first person, sometimes dialogue—provides a vernacular translation that narrates a particular example of what or who it is that “inhabits.” Finally, the photographs provide the visual ambience or “look” of the artifacts or land depicted. The monologue maintains the continuity of the book by relating the many individual speakers to the whole and by reminding readers of the many divergent elements, as evidenced in the second voice, that represent the United States.
Essentially, Morris uses words to add another dimension to the visual cues provided by the pictures. In The Inhabitants, one of his intentions was to move his audience beyond the clichés of hard times, ruin, and alienation, commonplace in the photography of the Depression, into new recognitions spawned by variform perspectives on ordinary objects, artifacts, and environments. The words help overcome that problem by revealing the nature of the object or artifact.
Beyond the reading Morris gives to the photographs, however, exists another autonomous realm. The presence of the photographs authenticates the “thing itself” as an independent entity or essence that speaks using its own voice. Morris once referred to the houses, buildings, and artifacts he photographed as “secular icons” having a “holy meaning to give out.” As such, the “thing” that Morris frames in his viewfinder has a metaphysical presence that goes beyond the mundane or superficial. Thus, Morris’s photographs are usually concerned with significant abstract presentations, while his words are more concerned with personal interpretations.
When the photographs are coupled with textual voices, a balanced three-dimensional image emerges that represents a harmonious blend of reality and fiction. In The Inhabitants, authentication of time and place rapidly fading from sight shares equal status with imaginative presentation and textual revelation. Ultimately, the photograph gives, as Morris says in Photographs and Words (1982), an incomparable registry of “what is going, going, but not yet gone.”
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