A conversation with Darius Himes & David Chickey
Editor's Note: I'm a Midwesterner so when I learned about Rebecca Norris Webb's My Dakota the project immediately caught my eye. It's one of my favorite photobooks published in 2012 and I'm thrilled to share her images and ideas with you here. For more information and to order a copy for your home library, visit RadiusBooks.org. — AA
Darius Himes: Becky, you grew up in South Dakota, correct? Why did you leave?
Rebecca Norris Webb: I was born in a Rushville, Indiana, and then moved to South Dakota when I was 15. Looking back, it may very well have been my first glimpse of those Western skies of South Dakota — from the backseat of my dad’s 1964 Chrysler 300 — that later turned me into a color photographer. I’d never seen skies so spectacularly blue, except perhaps in Technicolor Westerns. Those big, seemingly endless blue Great Plains skies spoke to the daydreamer I was then — and the photographer I am today.
After I finished a master’s degree in poetry from the University of South Dakota, for some reason my poetry deserted me. Looking back, I realize that perhaps the kind of lyric poetry I was writing during college had become too restrictive, too limiting. It didn’t contain enough of the world, and my curiosity about it. To break through the writer’s block, I decided to apply for a passport and travel for a year, buying a camera in order to take “visual notes” for perhaps a future project. What happened instead is that I fell in love with photography. It was only after taking a year of photography classes in Seattle and in New York, however, that I had an epiphany: I realized that the eye that took the photographs was the same eye that saw the images in my poetry. I think the Nebraska photographer and writer, Wright Morris, said it best: “I don’t give up the camera eye when I write, merely the camera.”
David Chickey: What was your original plan or vision for your My Dakota?
Rebecca Norris Webb: When I started the project, all I knew for sure then was that I’d lived in New York City for some 15 years and still described myself — in the writer Dawn Powell's words — as “a permanent visitor” because New York had never quite felt like home. Photographing that first year in South Dakota, I remember being a little overwhelmed trying to work in that vast landscape with a small format camera. I considered switching to a larger format, until I realized that one of the things that intrigued me most about the Great Plains was the challenge of trying to capture a more spontaneous and intimate vision of the West, a vision akin to the vision of some of the women writers from the region like Willa Cather from Nebraska, Louise Erdrich from North Dakota, and Marilynne Robinson from Idaho. For Robinson, the West is “mysterious, aloof, and rapturously gentle.” Photographing the prairies and badlands that first summer, I was hoping to capture a sense of what all that space feels like to someone who grew up there.
Darius Himes: Living on the Great Plains involves a great deal of driving to do, well, basically anything. You've mentioned that you think of this as a "road-trip" book, a genre that has a long and storied history in photography. Tell us about how this book fits into that tradition.
Rebecca Norris Webb: Well, to begin with, this project began with a road trip in 2005: Alex and I drove from our Brooklyn neighborhood to my hometown in Hot Springs, South Dakota, a journey of some 1700 miles, in our old Saab, which we’d bartered photographic prints for earlier that year. Alex then flew back East, and I had a summer to explore my home state photographically. I’ve learned over the years to follow wherever a project may lead me, so I don’t think I consciously thought that My Dakota would necessarily become a road-trip book like The Americans, although photographing in the West brought to mind some of my favorite Frank photographs, such as “Butte, Montana, 1956,” which he photographed through the sheer curtains of his hotel room’s window.
I’ve always marveled at how Frank managed to capture not only the feel of this Montana mining town’s drab downtown, but also a sense of something else more complicated and difficult to pin down (Melancholy? Irony? Reverie? A mix of all three?), something that suggests a kind of complex interiority of the poetic Swiss-born Frank as he gazed out from his hotel room at the bleak reality of what the once legendary American West had become by the mid 1950’s. It’s a view that shouldn’t “merit a second glance,” according to the cultural critic Geoff Dyer, yet “it demands that we return to it again and again.” For me, that’s usually a clue that I’m looking at a truly poetic image.
Robert Frank, Butte, Montana, 1956.
The second year of my South Dakota project, however, one of my brothers died unexpectedly of heart failure, and everything changed. All of a sudden, my need to drive through the badlands and prairies of my home state and photograph became heightened, fueled by an overwhelming restlessness, which was my initial and surprising response to the first death of an immediate family member. I say surprising because I don’t normally like to drive. And I was always getting lost — in badlands and prairies, in hard rains and heat waves. Lost and loss. For months.
As I worked deeper into the project, I didn’t feel quite so alone when I ran across other grieving South Dakotans who’d experienced the same restless need to drive — and who’d also gotten lost repeatedly, even in familiar terrain. “Maybe the grieving should be prohibited from driving and wear a large red A on their chests — like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter,” said a woman rancher with a wry smile. “Or perhaps a red, Triple A!” added a South Dakota widow with a laugh.
By the end of that second year, my original vision of My Dakota had expanded well beyond the original borders of those intimate Western landscapes to encompass also my car, the road, and my entire circuitous road trip while grieving for my brother. It was just dawning on me then that if I were working on some sort of variation of the road-trip book, it wasn’t just the poetic Frank’s “Butte, Montana, 1956,” that was, figuratively speaking, coming along with me for the ride. I was also bringing along some of my favorite road-trip poems, whose tension, vitality — and sometimes even epiphany — often arise from the dynamic between driving down the open road and the stopped vehicle: “Two forces — one forward moving, unthinking, one stilled and reflective — connect and disconnect us; the uneasy match seems profoundly American,” notes the poet Marianne Boruch. Some of my favorite road-trip poems include M. Wyrebek’s “Night Owl,” William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” and Emily Dickinson’s famous carriage ride that begins,
Because I could not stop for Death ––
He kindly stopped for me ––
The Carriage held but just Ourselves ––
David Chickey: For me, one of the biggest design challenges with this book was picking a cover image, especially since there are so many great images in this body of work. Can you write a bit about how we settled on the one we did — and how it helps to set the mood of the book as it relates to a road-trip theme?
Rebecca Norris Webb: Early last year, Alex and I had halfheartedly chosen “Blackbirds” as the cover of our rough, homemade book dummy, but we weren’t convinced it had the right feel for the cover. Besides, we’d been humbled more than once by your amazing cover designs, David — such as your startling double fold-out front-and-back covers for our joint book on Cuba, Violet Isle. Alex and I have learned over the years to trust your design sense, which often illuminates our work in ways that neither Alex nor I — as photographers — could possibly do.
So last fall, we were both surprised and pleased when you showed us your cover design at the Radius offices in Santa Fe. You said that since the book was in essence the road trip of my grief through the South Dakota landscape, it made sense to start the journey with an image of my car in the Badlands. Additionally, underneath this dust jacket, “State Map” was printed on the book itself, because — as you also explained to us — I’d need a road map for my journey, too. Taken together, these two images felt like the right beginning for My Dakota — like an open car door inviting viewers/readers along for the ride.
"State Map," PLC (printed laminated cover) beneath the My Dakota dust jacket
Darius Himes: My Dakota is dedicated to your brother, who passed away. How does he figure into this project?
Rebecca Norris Webb: I guess I’d say that My Dakota is filled with his absence.
And looking back now, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps this road trip of my grief for him — which seems out-of-character for me, someone who’s never liked to drive — was in part inspired by his — and his identical twin brother’s — love of cars and road trips.
David Chickey: I think it's likely clear to anyone who reads the text here that you have a background as a poet. But I think it's rare to find an artist who so eloquently blends text and images. Can you perhaps explain the process a bit? How does one inform the other — or does it?
Rebecca Norris Webb: When I see an image that intrigues me for some reason, my first response is to photograph it. Since I still use film, it’s often weeks later when I first look at the contact sheet. Maybe it’s the poet in me, but more and more I’m beginning to realize that this waiting period is more important than I ever realized. It’s hard to explain, but something happens to this image in my mind’s eye while I’m waiting for its unidentical twin — the image on the piece of film I photographed — to be developed. The image floats for a few weeks in the back of my mind, and all the while it’s being bathed in all kind of associations — conscious and unconscious. So I guess you could say that two very different kinds of development are going on during this rich, fertile waiting period, and both play a role in my final intuitive editing process.
I call my intuitive editing process “re-vision” because it’s similar to the way I revise poetry. This “re-vision” process — both for editing text and images — is based on a kind a faith that my images are wiser than I am. It can take me weeks, months, and sometimes even years to uncover and to decipher what an image is trying to say to me. One of the first clues that I’ve stumbled upon the book’s main metaphor is when I find myself writing about the same image I’ve already photographed. My writing tends to lag behind my photography. Over the years, I’ve had to learn to be patient with the more erratic rhythm of my writing, which reminds me of a meandering, willful Labrador retriever that can’t help but vanish from my side from time to time, in order to follow a particularly delectable scent into the deep, lush woods.
Another clue to my uncovering a book’s central metaphor is purely intuitive, and hence more difficult to describe. It involves sensing which image resonates with enough of the emotional and metaphysical weight of a project — and, simultaneously, which image is also buoyed by enough luminosity and vibrancy — to lift the image up into the realm of metaphor. And how does an image lift up into metaphor, the poetic term which literally means “carrying over”? “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather,” according to the French poet Paul Valery.
Darius Himes: Is there a narrative element to this book? Do we go from Point A to Point B? Or is there a different type of road implied?
Rebecca Norris Webb: During the darkest time of my grief for my older brother, Dave, I didn’t turn to photography books for solace, but to poetry. It was my first loss of an immediate family member, which some equate to first love, because you are never quite the same afterwards. Some of the only poems that spoke to me during those difficult first months were villanelles (non-linear poems that resist narrative development): Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Each refrain is repeated four times — like Bishop’s ironic refrain, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” — and each time, the refrain’s meaning shifts, stumbles, circles back, deepens.
If those villanelles hadn’t spoken to me when I was most grief struck, perhaps I wouldn’t have followed the strong pull of My Dakota’s repeated images — apples, deer, waves, brown coat, prairie — both in my photographs and in my spare text pieces, and found the book’s elegiac structure. If those villanelles hadn’t spoken to me when I was most grief struck, perhaps I wouldn’t have trusted My Dakota’s meandering, repetitious structure, which echoes the circuitous journey of my own grieving mind and heart trying — over and over and over and over again — to inhabit the contradiction, as the poet Rilke would say, of my brother’s death and my family’s very much alive love for him.
David Chickey: There is an intimacy to this book that, for me, is heightened by the use of your handwritten text. This is something we talked about quite a bit in the design process, and you were a bit resistant to it in the beginning. Are you getting more comfortable with seeing your own handwriting now? And how have people responded to it in the printed book?
Rebecca Norris Webb: Yes, initially I was very resistant, because I’ve always been self-conscious about my rather loopy handwriting. I slowly came around, however, after I found — quite by accident — an example of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting in a book of essays that I had bought. I just assumed her handwriting would be as compact and as exact as her poetry. Instead, I was startled to find Dickinson also had a rather loopy handwriting! One spare poem was often scrawled over two or three pages. Her handwriting wasn’t at all what I expected. It told me something about her that wasn’t evident in her poetry on the printed page. I continue to be surprised by the enthusiastic response to my handwriting in the book. My favorite comment came from Magdalena Herrera, a friend who’s the Director of Photography at Geo in Paris. My handwriting’s long, sweeping strokes reminded Magdalena of “those tall grasses on the prairie.”
David Chickey: You and Alex (Becky's husband Alex Webb) work so collaboratively — yet in such a unique way. I think readers would be interested in your process, and the role that Alex plays.
Rebecca Norris Webb: If, for instance, I’m the author of the book — like with My Dakota — I do the first sequence for the book dummy, and then Alex takes a look and tells me what he thinks. We learned over the years that it’s necessary to be tough on each other’s work. Our friend, the artist Joyce Kozloff — who is married to another friend, the art critic and photographer, Max Kozloff — says the most difficult journey her work makes is the trip from her studio out her front door, because Max always weighs in first before her work is released into the world.
Fortunately, one of our house rules is that the author always has the last word. Perhaps that’s why our marriage has survived as long as it has, and why our collaborative projects — such as this new one we’re slowly wading into in the U.S. — are much trickier to navigate…