April and May of 1947 were a period of intense activity for Wright Morris. Aged thirty-seven, he returned to Norfolk, Nebraska, where he had spent his early childhood before embarking—first by circumstance, later by choice—on a nomadic life. Images of dirt farms from which people eked a living, sun-scalded soil, snowbanks that sealed a house shut in winter, grain elevators darting skyward like chapels in the flat landscape haunted his imagination and nourished his prose. Equipped with a 4×5 view camera, Morris visited his Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara’s place, and within mere few weeks took an astonishing number of photographs that pull one in with the focused passion of his gaze.
The oval mirror frames the reflection of a domestic space where a huddle of family portraits attest to human tenacity and attachment to the land. Every object bears traces of long use: the curtains in the windows, sewn from mail-order fabric, are sun-bleached; the faded floral wallpaper, applied with care and inexperience, wrinkles and peels away at the edges. The rug, however, too costly, is rolled out only on festive occasions. The layers of floral patterns, on either side of the mirror, down to the botanic ribbon etched right into its surface, are what makes the home homey. A simple home, and yet, right in the heart of it, the viewer can’t get the lay of the place: Are there one or two windows? Where does the door go? What is it doing there, wedged between a table and a drawn curtain? The house is a labyrinth: the door had been pulled off its hinges and sits propped against the wall. The round picture frame, darkened with age, is the displaced center that tucks at the zones of shadow, drawing them in. The play of angles and tilted surfaces is nearly dizzying. Added to this, the imperfect, old-fashioned mirror reflects a rippling image, the way dream visions and flashbacks are represented in the movies.
Wright Morris looked for “the evidence of man in the artifacts that revealed his passing.” He wanted to capture human presence by showing the imprint a person makes in the world by living in it. The mirror, photography’s metaphor par excellence, throws back an image crammed with the sediment of existence that, for a moment, makes the viewer forget about the absence of a living reflection.
By Ela Kotkowska
Wright Morris – The Home Place
24 January – 5 April 2020
Foam Fotografiemuseum, Keizersgracht 609, 1017 DS, Amsterdam