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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Storyteller from the Past

Wright Morris — Photography and the Fictional Story

In terms of photographic literacy, it has been one of the biggest disappointments I've encountered in photography that so few photographers are familiar with the work of Wright Morris. In my way of thinking, he may very well be the most underappreciated photographer of the 20th century. To some degree, it may be understandable however because photography was not his primary mode of artistic expression. Although he was a superb photographer which can be readily seen in the wonderful monograph produced by The Friends of Photography, Photographs & Words, in 1982, it is primarily as a novelist that Wright Morris is best known. He won numerous prestigious awards for his novels (National  Book Awards, Guggenheim Fellowships, Western Literature Association's Distinguished Achievement Award, Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts) and there was no doubt that he considered writing his primary artistic expression as well as avocation. Nonetheless, the inspiration he's provided me in my photographic pursuits is incalculable.

Because he was such a skilled writer, Morris did something few other photographers have ever done, and that no one has done so well — he combined his photography with fictionalized text to create three spectacular books, The Home Place, The Inhabitants, and God's Country of My People. What is particularly fascinating about these three books is that they use many of the same photographs in combination with completely different fictionalized text. Other than Wright Morris, almost all combinations of image and text are factual, documentary, journalistic in nature. Think Walker Evan and James Agee, or Dorothea Lange and Paul Tayler. Morris almost single-handedly represents an alternative point of view — that of using photographs to represent imaginary storytelling. Reading all three of his books and seeing how he used the same images in combination with three completely different bodies of text was, to me, an earthshaking revolution that opened yet another creative path for my work.

A secondary aspect of Morris' three books can be seen in the obvious implications for whom these books were produced. These are not publications intended for other photographers, but rather publications that use photography to tell a story and whose anticipated audience is the general public. The reproduction quality of the images is limited to the printing quality and retail price for the intended audience. Inexpensively produced and sold to the masses, these books were a significant departure from the other volumes I had been collecting in my photographic library. The audience for these three books dwarfs — by orders of magnitude — the audience for a typical fine art museum monograph. To this day I find that an exciting and motivating concept — that photography can be of interest outside of photographic circles. Other than a few mass publications — National Geographic comes to mind — most photography books are sold through the photography section of the bookstore which is almost exclusively haunted by other photographers. Not these books by Wright Morris; specifically because these books are not about photography, but rather are about Americana and the way of life he captured in his unique combinations of image and text. The concept is so invigorating I'm still surprised to this day that there aren't more examples from other photographers who follow in the footsteps of this pioneering storyteller.

I should also add that one of Wright Morris' biggest champions relative to his photography was no less than Ansel Adams. The Friends of Photography monograph Photographs & Words not only pays tribute to Morris' photographic skills, but to my knowledge, was the first time Morris' images had been printed in a commercial publication with the consummate skill of a museum-quality book printer. This monograph demonstrated to me that Wright Morris was no second-rate photographer who slapped a bunch of inferior images to his excellent text, but rather was a photographer of considerable skill and abilities whose images were compromised by the budgetary constraints for his trade publications. The obvious point of departure that provided inspiration for a lot of my work was the pursuit of high-quality photographic reproduction in combination with text. What was not practical in Morris' day is practical now and nothing would please me more than to see more photographers taking inspiration from Wright Morris and producing high-quality photography in combination with powerfully written prose.