Time Pieces

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Since 1942, Wright Morris has been defining the American character, looking at how people pursue and fail to achieve the American dream in twenty novels including The Field of Vision (1956) and Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980), both winners of the National Book Award. Morris has also been a critic, examining, in such books as The Territory Ahead (1958) and About Fiction (1975), how writers discover and mine the raw material of their experience. In his seventies, he turned memoirist, creating an eloquent three-volume autobiography showing how he has turned the raw material of his life into art.

Yet another Morris has been Morris the photographer. In what he terms photo-texts, he has published black-and-white photographs of American artifacts and structures evocative of the lives of their owners joined with brief prose passages whose moods complement those of the photographs. In addition to The Inhabitants (1946) and God’s Country and My People (1968), his photo-texts include The Home Place (1948), a novel with photographs, and Love Affair: A Venetian Journal (1972), featuring color photographs of his favorite European city.

Morris has also written about photography, and Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory collects fourteen essays, sections of books, lectures, and interviews dealing directly or indirectly with photography written between 1951 and 1982 and one essay written especially for this volume. Time Pieces also includes twenty-three Morris photographs and five by other photographers. The collection combines aesthetics with autobiography, as Morris reflects upon the artistry of photography and his work as a photographer.

For Morris, photography, both by artists and amateurs, has many functions, one being as an instrument of history. He sees the camera snipping “the living tissue” of time to preserve “along with the distortions, the illusions, the lies, a specimen of the truth.” Many of Morris’ fictional characters are overly concerned with time, obsessed with the past. He considers photography a means of cheating the passage of time, of preserving the past. Reflecting upon a snapshot he took of three peasant women in a Viennese open market in the 1930’s, “I dimly perceived that time itself scaled to human perception, was the time captured by the camera eye, and why it awed, lured, and escaped me. The secret heart of the snapshot is the snippet taken from the reel of time, in and out of time, timely and timeless.” Photographs not only arrest time but help define reality. Morris attributes the recent renewal of interest in photography by, among others, scholars and collectors to “our perplexity as to what, if anything, is real.”

Morris is himself somewhat perplexed about the artistic nature of photography. He wonders if something is lost by the imposition of the personality of the artist/photographer upon his photograph. Morris is concerned that considering a photograph a work of art does little more than bring about market value: “The photographer, not the photograph, becomes the collectible.” He does not deny the artistry of photography but thinks that much of it is unplanned, that photographers are preeminent among artists “who find more than they seek.” Nevertheless, art can result when the photographer makes the commonplace, the cliched new so that the observer can rediscover its reality.

Morris finds that he often rediscovers both the reality in and the artistry of photographs when the photographer is anonymous because he sees only the image, not the maker of the image. Why he cannot do this so easily when he knows the identity of the photographer is unclear, but he finds himself moved by what he calls the impersonal: “It is the camera that glimpses life as the Creator might have seen it. We turn away as we do from life itself to relieve our sense of inadequacy, of impotence.” Morris illustrates this point with an analysis of a photograph of the inauguration of the first electric streetcar in Manchester taken by an anonymous English photographer in 1900. Depicted is not only the ceremony and its onlookers but also, in the center, another—surprised—photographer setting up his equipment to shoot the same scene from a different angle. Morris praises the unsophistication of the photographer for simply shooting the ceremony as he found it, for not attempting to give his impression of the event: “This might have heightened its drama, its ‘human’ interest, at the expense of what we feel to be authentic—life mirrored not by ourselves but by life itself.”

With another anonymous photograph,...

(The entire section is 1924 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Art and Antiques. VI, May, 1989, p.69.