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A different way of looking at the world
By Phil Soreide
I didn’t grow up in Nebraska and somehow my English teachers never got around to teaching a unit on Wright Morris, one of the 20th Century’s most influential writers. Morris had a profound influence on the way the entire world perceived the Midwest and the character of the American people, but I remained in blissful ignorance decades after my graduation until our book club read his novel The Home Place.
What a revelation.
The Home Place was one of Morris’ early experiments with the literary form and in it, each page of text faces a full-page black and white photograph. The photos are not specific to the text; they’re not even really illustrations of the story, although they follow the general narrative arc. They are intended, as I learned later, to change the way you experience reading — to put your mind in a place of simultaneously contemplating the story that’s unfolding in words and the somewhat different story that’s inherent within the photograph.
The photographs themselves are in a distinctive style. They are compositions of objects and scenes crafted to have meaning well beyond the surface image. They are intended as a photographic interpretation of character.
Discovering the Heart of America
This spring, the Holdrege Area Public Library launched a photography contest called the Heart of America and inspired by the works of Wright Morris. Amateurs and professionals could enter in separate categories, but the intent was that all the photographs would represent modern interpretations of the Wright Morris ethos.
My wife is the director of the Holdrege Library so it was inevitable that I would end up being a part of this project. Her motivation for sponsoring the contest was that it was an opportunity for the library to involve patrons in the creation rather than just the consumption of creative work. If the library is supposed to be a center of lifelong learning, she reasoned, let’s offer a learning experience.
One of the opening events of the contest was a reception in which Dr. Robert Brooke, a professor of English at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, gave a talk on Wright Morris and what he was trying to do in his photographic and literary explorations. From Dr. Brooke’s presentation and through a later group exercise he conducted, I came to understand that one of the things that interested Morris was the idea of multiple concepts occurring simultaneously in your brain. In a Wright Morris picture, for example, Morris wants to you to simultaneously see the character of the object he’s photographing in terms of its original intention; witness what it has become in this precise moment in time; and glimpse the place it may hold in some distant future.
Stalking the Wright Morris object
The following weekend, cameras in hand, we embarked on a lengthy road trip through the back roads of south central Nebraska seeking the “Wright Morris object” as intently as an avid bird watcher seeks a Wilson’s phalarope.
A pair of tractors for sale by the side of the road caught our eye. Once they had undoubtedly been the flashiest tractors on the showroom floor, but now, while they were still powerful pieces of machinery, they looked aging; faded; almost quaint, sitting idle in the long grass. In another few years, they probably won’t have the power or connections needed to handle even the smallest equipment and will fade away entirely.
We were looking for the things that were passing, but hadn’t yet passed. In Riverton, we found a U.S. Post Office, open despite the town’s small size, but adjacent to an empty storefront which was in turn adjacent to a derelict building that had clearly had no roof for decades. We took the picture because the row of structures seemed to show the past, present and future in a single frame — the Wright Morris way of seeing things.
Clearly, we are enriched when we learn something new. When I first started dabbling in painting a few years ago, I had the same experience of seeing the world with fresh eyes — only then it was in the context of trying to imagine what colors I would mix together to achieve the exact hue of a shadow or sunset.
I am sure that we weren’t the only ones who learned something about Wright Morris and tried to apply it specifically for this contest. There were 139 entries – pretty good for the first year – and if not all of them seemed to “get” the theme, there were many exceptional expressions in the Wright Morris style. (See the winners and an exhibition schedule; photos will be on display in Phelps County throughout the summer.)
Maybe the take-away is this. In Andrew Carnegie’s day, libraries were just about books. Modern libraries must also address things like the community’s need for a neutral meeting space, public access to digital resources, and access to information for persons who may be impaired in different ways. Libraries may offer the latest formats such as DVDs, audio books and online eBooks, but the philosophical concept that gives them value in a digital age is as valid now as it ever was — libraries must be a public center for lifelong learning. Going forward, projects like this one test their viability as places that create opportunities for creative expression and cultural enrichment.
I wonder what we’ll learn about next year.
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