Wright Morris

Wright MorrisStraightback Chair, Home Place, Norfolk, Nebraska, 1947. Purchase, Rights and Reproductions.
© Estate of Wright Morris, Courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography. 81.15.7

Wright Morris (1910-1998) was a renowned writer and affective photographer. Pairing photographs with his own writing, Morris pioneered a new tradition of “photo-texts” in the 1940s that proved highly influential to future photographers. Devoid of figures, his photographs depict everyday objects and atmosphere. Morris’s poetic images exist in a fictional narrative, but reference documentary style.

Born in Nebraska, Morris attended Pomona College in Claremont, California. After graduation he traveled throughout Europe, purchasing his first camera in Vienna. Morris returned to California in 1934 determined to become a writer, but also continued to photograph. In 1935, he bought a Rolleiflex camera and began photographing extensively. Morris first exhibited his photo-texts in 1940, at the New School for Social Research in New York. This same year the Museum of Modern Art purchased prints for their collection and New Directions published images that would become his first book.

In 1942, Morris received the first of his three Guggenheim Fellowships, funding the completion of The Inhabitants. Published by Scribners, The Inhabitants (1946) documented domestic scenes of the South, Midwest, and Southwest and although visually influential enjoyed little financial success. His second photo-text book, The Home Place (1948) was a visual novel, with short fictional prose accompanying each photograph. Although groundbreaking, it remained unmarketable and after its publication Morris invested in his more successful career as a writer. In 1956, Morris won the National Book Award for his tenth book, the unillustrated A Field of Vision. Morris continued to write and publish while teaching English and creative writing from 1962-1974 at San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California. Morris’s acclaimed novel, Plains Song won American Book Award for Fiction 1981.

The Museum of Modern Art proved supportive of Morris throughout his career, both exhibiting and purchasing his work. MoMA curator John Szarkowski prompted a reconsideration of Wright Morris with the publication of God’s Country and My People (1968), widely considered Morris’s most successful photo-text book. Morris’s exhibition career burgeoned in his later years with many shows including Wright Morris: Origin of a Species, a 1992 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and following his death, Distinctly American: The Photography of Wright Morris at Stanford’s Cantor Center of Art in 2002.

The Wright Morris archive contains 357 vintage prints (printed by Morris and under his supervision); a portfolio of 12 modern prints published by the Witkin Gallery in 1981; about 500 prints work prints; and photographic materials including black and white film negatives in a variety of formats, color 35mm slides, videotapes, and a small selection of portraits of Morris and his wife, Josephine Kantor.

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