This is the fourth post in an ongoing series exploring the studios and creative lives of our gallery’s photographers. The last time we saw Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, it was in September 2011 at the opening of our Violet Isle exhibition, a selection of photographs the couple took in Cuba. Next on the agenda for Rebecca, between lectures in Singapore and Milan with Alex, is the release of her much anticipated monograph My Dakota by Radius Books.
We caught up with Rebecca by email last week and asked her to tell us about life as a photographer.
Tripod Blog: You’re an artist. Do you collect art?
Rebecca Norris Webb: Although Alex Webb, my husband and creative partner, and I have a few photographs we’ve collected over the years –– including a Disfarmer and an Atget –- for the most part we’re more photography book collectors than photography print collectors. Together, we must have close to 1000 photography books, and they have pretty much taken over our Brooklyn apartment. Thankfully, our apartment is in the parlor rooms of one of those 1880’s Park Slope brownstones, so we have very high ceilings!
Additionally, I’m afraid our living room is looking a bit too much like a natural history museum these days, what with Alex’s extensive collection of masks from around the world and my natural history specimens from my home state of South Dakota, including a buffalo vertebrae and a swallow’s nest I found in an abandoned farm house.
TB: Tell us about your studio space.
RNW: Well, we are a two-photographer family sharing one studio space. Thankfully our apartment has high ceilings.
TB: What do you remember about the first time you held a camera?
RNW: For me, my most indelible camera memory happened about a year after I started photographing. Originally I was a poet, and after college my writing dried up. Looking back, I think it was because the kind of lyrical poetry I was writing didn’t contain enough of the world, or my curiosity about it. So I bought a small camera and decided to travel for a year, hoping the snapshots would spark my poetry when I returned. Instead, at the end of that year, I fell in love with photography. I realized that the same eye that saw the images in my poetry was the same eye that saw the images through my camera lens.
“I don’t lose the camera eye when I write, merely the camera,” noted Wright Morris, who also combined text and images in his books.
TB: How do the arts impact your art?
RNW: Literature –– especially poetry –– has long been a major influence on my work and on my life. Alex and I were both literature majors in college, so besides our large collection of photography books, we have an equally large collection of novels, essays, and poetry books.
For instance, while working on My Dakota, which is an elegy for one of my brothers, I turned to poetry books for solace, not to my vast collection of photography books. During those first difficult months, some of the only poems that spoke to me were villanelles, such as Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” or Roethke’s “The Waking,” a poetic form whose two refrains are repeated four times each.
Each time a refrain is repeated –– such as Roethke’s haunting line, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow” –– the meaning shifts, sometimes questioning the original meaning, sometime meandering off, sometimes circling back.
So in part, it was because those villanelles spoke to me when I was most grief struck that I managed to uncover the book’s organic rhythm and sequence, whose repeated photographic and text images–– such as apples and swallows’ nests and waves –– echo the confused, meandering path of my own grief.
TB: Tell us about your current project.
RNW: My Dakota started out as a photographic exploration of my home state of South Dakota, a sparsely populated frontier state on the Great Plains. I was trying to capture a more personal and intimate West. I was trying to capture a sense of what all that space feels like to someone who grew up there.
A year in to the project, however, everything changed. One of my brothers died unexpectedly of heart failure. For months, one of the few things that eased my unsettled heart was the landscape of South Dakota. It seemed all I could do was drive and photograph. I began to wonder –– Does loss have its own geography?
The International Center of Photography will host a book launch for My Dakota on Thursday, May 24, from 6 to 7:30 PM in New York City. Click here to learn more.