“Without a person in the frame,” writes photographer Alex Harris in the book “Dream of a House: The Passions and Preoccupations of Reynolds Price,” “we try to make sense of the mystery of a place or the accumulations of a lifetime.”
After author and scholar Price died in 2011, Harris, a dear friend, set out to document the celebrated Southern writer’s eccentric and art-filled home. Harris’ photographs appear alongside excerpts from Price’s work — novels, memoirs, plays and collections of poetry and essays that he wrote throughout his lifetime. Taken together, the photographs become a kind of portrait in absentia; in conversation with Price’s own words, the book is a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the private, domestic world of one writer’s life.
What can things — furniture, everyday objects, art — really tell us about someone? If this book is any indication, plenty. What Price chose to surround himself with tells us about his obsessions, his affections, and perhaps even his perception of himself.
The sheer number of decorative elements documented in Price’s home — framed paintings, first edition books, sculptures, photographs, icons — feels novelistic. In a way, the question of what objects can reveal about a person is the territory of writers, who choose details to illuminate their character’s inner life — the “show, don’t tell” maxim familiar to many. And, like a writer constructing a scene, Price placed works “precisely where they would resonate with other pieces,” writes Harris, “where he wanted them to live.”
In an interview excerpted in the book, Price said that he surrounded himself with “images of what I have loved and love and worship — worship in the sense of offering my life and work to them.” For this writer, on every wall, inspiration.
Price taught for more than five decades at Duke University (“Dream of a House” is published by George F. Thompson Publishing in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University,) and was a Rhodes scholar and a winner of the 1986 National Book Critics Circle award in fiction for his novel “Kate Vaiden.” He titled, fittingly for an art collector, his first of four memoirs “Clear Pictures.”
In Harris’ photograph of Price’s writing desk there is also the story of a man who was paralyzed after the removal of a tumor in his spine. “Though his collections had begun long before,” writes Harris, “when Reynolds became a relative shut-in after he was confined to a wheel chair in 1984, his rooms gradually filled floor to ceiling with his passions and preoccupations.”
Marble busts, ceramic angels, Christian and queer iconography — Price’s home is eclectic, maximalist and lovely. It is also, despite his absence, touchingly lived-in. The placement of a favorite pair of salt and pepper shakers on a windowsill, just so; the stack of books on a table, or a painting propped up against a wall — his home was unique, but also familiar in its idiosyncrasies and imperfections. In a particularly compelling detail shot, a crucifix shares mug-space with toothbrushes and clippers, a thimble and thread with other detritus of day-to-day life.
“Dream of a House” pays tribute to Price; it also awakens the observer to one of Price’s own observations.
“Far more things that we guess in the world are worthy of our notice,” he wrote. “They silently require our concentration, our slow comprehension, or at least our awe.”