An Analysis of Photo Essays

The equality between photographs and text in photo essays is a delicate balance of vision and content that unites to form a comprehensive and moving collage of words and images. Photo essays show and tell a story collaboratively. When looking at a photo essay it is important to look beyond the words and the pictures to explore who is writing the text, who is taking the pictures, what is their relationship, and essentially what is the message behind this collaboration? In his essay, The Photographic Essay: Four Case Studies, W.J.T. Mitchell explores the nuances of the photo essay in four case studies where he analyzes content, style, ethics and the relationship between the writers and the photographers. I tried to apply Mitchell’s methods of analysis when looking at a photo essay entitled, Time Pieces by Wright Morris to obtain a deeper understanding of the essay.

To understand the work of Morris, I first had to acquaint myself with the man behind the images and words. Morris was an award-winning author and photographer who chronicled the life of Middle Americans on film and in many of his short stories and novels. He wrote over thirty-three award-winning books, his book, Field of Vision won the National Book Award in 1956. In addition to his novels he has written several collections of short stories, books of criticism, and photo-text books. Despite his abundance of books and awards, he did not obtain widespread popularity during his lifetime.

Time Pieces is divided into chapters that discuss different areas of life and photography. Morris takes the majority of the pictures except for a few from other photographers. Wright writes all of the text in the photo essay. The text is mostly stories that offer the history behind the particular photograph or a discourse on the evolution of photography and the ethics and boundaries that photographers must adhere to. In a section called, The Question of Privacy Morris writes,

“Not long ago-perhaps not long enough-both writers and photographers thought they knew ‘where to draw the line.’ The first saw this line clearly, sharp as a crack in a mirror, on the ground glass of a camera I had set up in the bedroom of a farmhouse.”(Morris 107).

The division of labor between the text and the photographs is not equal; the scale is obviously tipped to the side of text that is abundant in the book. The pictures are poignant and clearly great photographs but there are not enough photos to make the text and the photographs equal. There is little resistance between the text and the photos, they act in unison and collaborate nicely with each other. The only resistance is in the lack of explanation of the pictures; the text overpowers the pictures thus causing some resistance.

In a section called, Photographs, Images and Words, Morris makes an interesting critique of a photo essay by Walker Evans,

“There is no foreword or postword. There are no captions or comments beyond the brief remarks on the jacket. It is a clean, handsome, well-lighted book, appropriate to the photographs. On turning the pages, however, I found that a few words would have been helpful. These are photographs first before they are images. We are legitimately curious about where the places are and whose faces it is. This information is neither irrelevant or distracting. Whenever we come upon a photograph that is not identified or captioned, the first thing we do is look on the back of it for what is not visible in the picture”(Morris 61).

Morris’s devotion to words and desire for complete explanation explains the disproportion amount of pictures to text. It seems that Morris would prefer fewer pictures with more explanation. His agenda is to show pictures but to really have a lot of text so that the weight of the collaboration is on the essay portion and not on the photos. When you look at Morris as a photographer and writer it appears that he prefers writing and is more generous with his writing than he is with his photographs. Morris had a prolific career as a writer so it is apparent that he places more of an importance on the text.

A photo essay by someone who is mainly a photographer would have more pictures and less text, because that is their area of expertise. The statement that Morris made about Evan’s photo essay is biased because he prefers words to images so he naturally requests for more words. He feels that words have become essential to photographs. “Tentatively, then with more and more assurance, words are now affirming the image, as the photograph once affirmed reality”(Morris 20). It is an interesting dichotomy from the art historian John Berger, who wants more paintings and less text, it is apparent that whatever medium these men concentrate on is the area that they rally for the most.

Within the text Morris has a conflict about photographs. He vacillates between the belief that photos are a good thing to photos are not as good as we like to believe.

“Photographs now confirm all that is visible, and the photographs will affirm what is one day remembered. Human affairs have not quite been the same since the first images formed on plates of copper, but after a century and a half we are still uncertain if it is more or less than what Samuel Beckett described as a ‘stain on the silence.'”(Morris 22).

Morris quotes Balzac’s feeling on photography, “believed that each exposure peeled away part of his actual substance, as if he were an onion”(Morris 21). This makes photography seem hurtful and invasive. As if photography can praise an image by capturing it yet at the same time rape the same image. It is clear that Morris appreciates photography for the way that it “memorizes” time, he also has animosity towards it and its power, “If there is a common photographic dilemma, it lies in the fact that so much ahs been seen, so much has been ‘taken,’ there appears to be less to find. The visible world, vast as it is, through overexposure has been devalued”(Morris 8). There is an obvious resistance within Morris towards photography and its impact.

Morris writes in a web that lures the reader in to his words and pictures. It is a similar tactic used in the photo essay Camera Lucida by Barthes. Both Barthes and Morris lead the viewer to the picture with language that is meant to explain the picture but never really completes the task. “But Barthes cannot take us into the center of the labyrinth except blindfolded, by ekphrasis, leading us with the thread of language”(Mitchell 542).

Morris and his text are very concerned with memory, and how photographs act as a form of memory. “Stopped time, the gift of the camera shutter, had made this moment a time piece both timely and timeless”(Morris 37). While other photographers have distinctive agendas that are politically or socially motivated, Morris’s agenda is not as obvious. His agenda and purpose is to capture time and influence memory. He states the purpose of the photograph when he says, “Photography discovers, recovers, reclaims and at unsuspecting moments collaborates with the creation of what we call history” (Morris 14). While some photographer’s agenda can be too strong or insult the viewer, Morris’s agenda is so basic and relevant that it can almost not be considered an agenda.

In the chapter, Of Memory, Emotion, and Imagination there is a picture called, Park Bench (1951) that shows a broken bench in a small town. The text goes onto explain of Morris’s return to the small town in which he grew up in and how his memory was prodded by these images in the town to remember his childhood. The picture of the park bench is used as a backdrop to the text to illustrate Morris’s ideas. This is true of most of the photographs in the book, when Morris speaks of his time in Europe there is a photo of a parade in London.

In the chapter entitled, The Romantic Realist a journalist from Israel approaches Morris at an exhibition of his work in 1975 and says, “You are a romantic”(Morris 23). The act of wanting to capture a moment in time is a romantic notion. A realist would argue that no moment in time can truly be captured. Barthes says, “the realists do not take the photograph for a ‘copy’ of reality, but for an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art” Mitchell 544). Photography has dualities it can be an art form while also being a tool for memory. When the journalist told Morris that he is a romantic he was correct in his assumptions, Morris is a romantic, a magician and an artist.

Morris’s pictures are mostly of scenery or what he would call “ruins.” There is an obvious absence of people in the photographs. He is very concerned with privacy and does not want to invade the privacy of people by photographing them. There are only two photographs of people in the photo essay, both pictures taken by other photographers. Morris seems to keep a respectful distance from people in photography, he uses the camera to remember and capture time, and therefore it is logical that he would not take pictures of people because they have limited time whereas objects have infinite time. It is not respectful or truthful to capture an image of a person and remember or hold them to that certain image. It distorts time. Morris is respectful of people and does not photograph them so that people won’t look at them and try and decipher their mood or have them be the poster child for some cause or region. It is demeaning to the people to be looked at in such a scrutinizing way that Morris obviously feels is to disrespectful to be a part of.

The pictures are commentaries on life in Middle America and glimpses into scenes that seem uninteresting, but somehow the photos make them interesting. He focuses on a simple bed; an object that everyone is familiar with, but his was of capturing the bed makes it look like something no one has ever seen before. He lends importance and significance to these inanimate objects by focusing on them with such distinction and clarity. Even though they are only objects Morris has respect for them and photographs them in their natural setting without disrupting anything. In a photo entitled, Straight Back Chair, 1947 the chair is placed near a door and is resting on an intricately patterned floor. The focus is on the craftsmanship and the personality of the chair. It is a worn chair that has obviously been a part of a family’s furniture collection for years. It is a photograph that you might look at without really seeing it. It can be looked at as just a chair, but Morris’s attention on the chair makes the viewer take notice of how much this chair has been used or loved by a family. Morris respects these inanimate objects because they are an extension of the people who own them, therefore to show the people respect he must also respect their belongings.

The text speaks around the pictures, instead of directly to them. There is little explanation why he chose to photograph specific objects. The objects say more about the text then the text says about the photos. The objects explain what the text is saying, and where Morris has traveled.

At the end of the book there is a section called, Photographs: A Selection, where there are pictures with accompanied text. It is a montage of photos from the same town in Nebraska that spans a decade. The pictures are of the insides of barbershops, houses and dresser drawers. Morris is concerned with fiction; it is a recurring theme throughout the book. Just like the photos act as an explanation for the text, the photos are also proof of reality. It is impossible to fictionalize something when there is proof of its existence. Morris makes sure that the photos re-affirm reality, act as a memory.

Morris Wright’s photo essay, Time Pieces is a unique and widespread collaboration of words and images. Throughout the essays Morris speaks of authors like James Joyce, Henry James, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain about their “visions” as authors and how they explore their visionary quest in their writings of The Red Badge of Courage and Finnegan’s Wake. Through Morris’s perpetual association of authors and images he thus makes the two inextricably connected. The pictures and text work with one another to give the reader a strong and comprehensive vision of what Morris wants the reader to know and understand about photography and writing.

By using Mitchell’s means of analysis I have learned to explore the nuances of a photo essay beyond the words and images. The writer and photographer have bonded the words and images together but it is incumbent upon the reader to look at each medium separately and then weave them back together to see if and how they form a cohesive whole. Once the photographs and the text have been separated and analyzed, and you look at the agenda within the photo essay, the relationship between the writer and the photographs and look for the co-equality and resistance, then and only then have you truly “seen” the photo essay for all that it has to offer.

Works Cited

Morris, Wright. Time Pieces. New York: Aperture, 1989

Mitchell, W.J.T. “The Photographic Essay: Four Case Studies” Ways of Reading: An Anthology For Writers, 5th edition Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford St. Martins 1999. 523-556.

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