In the company of Wright Morris
Wright Morris came to photography through writing about the rural environment of the American Mid-West, at a given moment, pre and post WWII, and in a particular place, the home.
The major social, cultural and economic changes of that era moved him to create a new literary genre he dubbed “Photo-Text” that allowed him, in the words of J. Alinder, to “visualize the picture he would put into words … and put into words what cries to be visualized.” (See bibliography)
“Patterns for living”
That is the notion that Morris used to bridge word and photograph, in as much as it refers operationally to the spatial arrangement of the home that made it look and feel lived in.
It became the point of view he could write about and photograph a particular “Home Place” and preserve its memory.(See bibliography)
It became the point of view for my selection of Morris’ photographs of rural Midwest home places, and for photographing equivalent spatial arrangements in my home.
I have chosen four black and white photographs made by Morris that I accompanied with four equivalent sepia toned images of my own home … equivalent in the sense that they visualized similar “patterns for living” .
A multipurpose storage-place
In both homes we notice the pattern of storing objects of practical and symbolic use in the open, on the top of various types of furnishing,
In a farmer’s home we notice a dresser top, covered with a decorative cloth, is used for that purpose while in mine it is the top of a book case, only partly covered with such a cloth, both situated in the “living room”.
The other difference is the density and variety of types of objects in the farmer’s home while in mine they are mostly symbolic and are fewer of them.
An activity-collecting and circulation-distributing place
Both homes have what is dubbed a living room with the common characteristics of serving for various types of activities such as resting during the day, family gathering at eating time or for playing and hobbies, etc.
While the farmer’s living room is an open area that includes a dining table, most likely serving for more than just eating, mine includes a semi-enclosed work and hobby corner, using a pattern of book cases to physically demarcate it.
While the farmer’s living room has a vital connection to the kitchen and through it to the back yard for wood storage etc., mine shows a connection to the eating part of the kitchen harboring a round table and the door to a balcony for fresh air and a view of the distant city.
In both cases there is most likely an access from the living room to the private areas of the home, i.e. the bedrooms; quite possibly a traditional stair to an upper floor in the case of farmer’s home while in mine the bedroom door is simply not visible being located in a side extension of the living room that includes access to the bathroom.
The ceremonial front door to the home, in the case of the farmer’s home, is most likely located in the part of the living room where a stair to the upper floor would be situated.
In the case of my living pattern, ceremonial and service access from outside use the same door opening onto a miniature circulation hub servicing a large coat closet, a fire exit door and a rear door to the kitchen to bring in packages etc. without having to cross the living room.
In conclusion let me note the contrast between the bare center of the farmer’s home living room while mine is occupied by the ever present “coffee table” that encroaches on the circulation across the living room.
A transitional place
The “single chair”, not dedicated to sitting at a table or desk, is part and parcel of the furnishing of the living room, be it for browsing book shelves, in the case of my home, or when located next to a door, for dropping items temporarily when leaving or entering, as in the case of the farmer’s home.
In both cases, we note the particular decorative treatment of the back-resting element of the chair that raise its strictly utilitarian purpose to that of heirloom perhaps.
Whether from the outside in as in the case of the barn doorway, shown above, or from inside to outside as in the case of the doorway to my balcony, shown below, each passage-place is marked by changes of flooring, ambient light, exposure to the weather, and by a variety of objects found on either side of the doorway.
Common to both situations is the remarkable practice of having objects related to outside activity left directly on the floor/ground; in the case of my balcony it is the metal dish serving as bird bath and in the case of the doorstep of Uncle Harty’s barn it is a bucket resting on its side.
Of-course there is no need for a door mat to wipe one’s shoes when entering a barn, that mat however will be used at the doorway between the farmer’s kitchen and living room!
The particularities of patterns for living of the farmer’s rural Home-Place can be explained by:
- The fact that the farmer’s home-place is part and parcel of his work environment, contributing to the multipurpose aspects of its spaces.
- The fact that the farmer’s home-place simplicity of furnishing is probably due to the need to have furnishing that can provide and endure various and heavy uses.
The particularities of the patterns of living in my home can be explained by:
- The fact that I live alone and am retired from professional life but still creatively active, contributes to the necessity for activities demarcations.
- The fact that a history of unavoidable accumulation of specialized furnishing contributes to the density of furnishings, hampering the circulation pattern in the home,
Otherwise the basic organizing patterns of living of the two illustrated home-places seem to be essentially the same; modified only to fit the difference in environmental, social and economic conditions of their inhabitants.
All black and white images are by Wright Morris and are taken from J. Alinder’s book.(See Bibliography)
All sepia toned images are by Maurice Amiel
Alinder, J. (ed.) Wright Morris – Words and photographs, published by The Friends of Photography, Carmel California, 1982.
Wright Morris, The Inhabitants, published originally in 1946 by Scribner’s, and still in publication by Hachette Books.
Wright Morris, The home place, published originally in 1948 under a Guggenheim fellowship, and still in publication by Bison Books