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“T h e t r u e w it n e s s o f a f a l s e EVENT” : P h o t o g r a p h y a n d Wr ig h t Mo r r i s ’s F ic t io n o f t h e 1950s L a u r a B a r r e t t The photographer’s power lies in his ability to re-create his subject in terms of its basic reality, and present this re­ creation in such a form that the spectator feels that he is seeing not just a symbol for the object, but the thing itself revealed for the first time. Guided by the photographer’s selective understanding, the penetrating power of the camera-eye can be used to produce a heightened sense of reality— a kind of super realism that reveals the vital essences of things. — Edward Weston, “W hat Is Photographic Beauty?” In 1939, photographer Edward Weston envisioned a future in which images would surpass reality by capturing its essence rather than its surface. Instead of Weston’s superrealism, however, we live in a world of hyperreality, defined by Jean Baudrillard as “the disappear­ ance of objects in their very representations” (45). Postmodernists argue that a profusion of images precludes our ability to experience reality directly: the sign has replaced the referent, and the model has supplanted the real. Wright Morris, who has straddled the eras of modernism and postmodernism, evoked by the Weston and Baudrillard quotations, has long recognized that who we are and what we see are predetermined by previous images.1 Indeed, describing his emotional response to a funeral procession that he witnessed in Mexico in 1958, Morris writes: At the somber beat of the drums the procession ap­ proached the farther corner, where, in the shadow of a build­ ing, a truck had parked, the platform crowded with a film crew and whirring cameras. The director, wearing a beret, shouted at the mourners through a megaphone. This was a funeral, not W A L 3 3 (1 ) SPRING 1 9 9 8 at the mourners through a megaphone. This was a funeral, not a fiesta, did they understand?. . . In my role as a gullible tourist, I had been the true witness of a false event. (Time Pieces 3) Ironically, a respectful Morris refrained from photographing the ostensibly sorrowful occasion only to discover that the event existed merely for its filmic value. His encounter with the pseudofuneral reflects a feeling pervasive in his novels of the fifties— that reality is waging a losing battle with its own representations. The Works of Love, The Huge Season, and The Field of Vision are rife with fictional photographs that symbolize the dangerous potential of images to reduce and replace reality, particu­ larly as sentimental souvenirs of the past or illusive depictions of par­ adise.2 With their tendency to frame space and remove episodes from time, photographs engender the illusion of perfection, stability, and permanence, an illusion so desirable in a complicated and fast-paced society that viewers are eager to acquire it by imitating the image, regardless of the fact that perfection, stability, and permanence equal death. It’s not surprising that many of Morris’s characters are caught between the material and immaterial worlds, between dreams and reality, between immortality and mortality, between falsity and truth, because they have been deceived by images.3 On the other hand, Morris, himself a photographer, refuses to deprecate the medium of photography which, as seen in his photo-texts, has the power to reveal by resisting platitudes, by refusing to reduce its subjects to a predictable framed space, and, in that respect, his photo-texts are similar to postmodern photographs that deliberately challenge the reader’s expectations. Literally, reusing space— Sherrie Levine’s appropriations of famous photographs, including 1979 Untitled (After Edward Weston), a copy print from a reproduction of Weston’s Torso of Neil, Richard Prince’s recycling of magazine and other mass media images in his self-entitled “rephotography,” and Barbara Kruger’s montages of reused images in dialogue with epigrammatic statements, such as “I shop therefore...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 27-57
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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