Rebecca Norris Webb’s photography, which has been praised for its subtlety and surprising emotional force, confirms her place in the lineage of such quiet virtuosi of the camera as André Kertész and Josef Sudek. Alex Webb, Rebecca’s husband, is a member of Magnum and one of the most celebrated contemporary photojournalists, notable for his color reportage from Latin America in the past three decades. In addition to working on individual projects, Alex and Rebecca also co-author photography books. I’m a long-time admirer of them both, and first met them as a student in one of their workshops. I caught up with Alex and Rebecca on the release of two new, jointly authored books. The first, published by Radius, is “Memory City,” a meditation on Kodachrome, the now discontinued color film that many photographers preferred, and the city of Rochester, where Kodak was based until it went bankrupt, in 2012. The second, from Aperture, is “On Street Photography and the Poetic Image,” a primer on street photography. (I wrote an introduction for the latter book.)
I feel that your ideal home for a photograph is in a book. Is this true? And, if so, how did you come by this way of looking at things? For you, Rebecca, is it connected to being a poet, and being involved in that way of making books? And for you, Alex, does it have anything to do with being a photographer who’s also very interested in literature?
AW: My introduction to serious photography was largely through books. My father, a publisher, editor, secretive fiction writer, and occasional photographer had a good collection of photography books, and I would spend hours poring over the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Ray Metzger, David Heath, and Bruce Davidson, among others, in the little reading room next to our front door. It was some years before I first saw original prints from many of these photographers.
Additionally, I’ve often been influenced by literature in many of my projects. My first trip to Haiti was largely inspired by reading Graham Greene’s “The Comedians,” a novel that fascinated and scared me. And much of my Latin American work has been influenced by the magic-realist novels of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Roa Bastos. Even the most recent book, “Memory City,” owes a deep debt to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.”
RNW: Originally a poet, I’ve often mixed text and images in my books, drawn to the tactile nature of the form, to the paradox of being able to hold in my hands a series of intangible moments.
These days, I’m especially intrigued by how the book’s tactile quality can heighten the experience of certain kinds of work, especially those elegiac in tone. I think of Anne Carson’s “Nox,” and how the addition of those distressed snapshots of her dead fugitive brother give the book a raw, unfinished feel, echoing the process of grief itself. It’s something I tried to do with “My Dakota,” which weaves my photographic landscapes and spare, handwritten text pieces from my road trips through South Dakota after my brother died unexpectedly. And “Memory City” ’s gatefolds and tipped-in images are a kind of nod to the unfolding of memory itself.
Ultimately, I find the book form grants me greater freedom in my continuing search for “a more spacious form,” to quote Milosz. I wonder if you would agree with this notion, Teju, as a writer and photographer who sometimes combines both forms in your work, as you’ve done most recently in “Every Day Is for the Thief.”
For sure, there’s an exhilaration in being able to sequence image and text and have it published. There’s a greater exhilaration in seeing it done well. “Nox” is a great example, and I think “Memory City” is another one, too. I wouldn’t want to live without the thrill of turning those pages, hearing them rustle, figuring out the physical logic of each book. But don’t you expect, someday, to perhaps do a project for iPad or Google Glass? And, since you’re both teachers of photography and regularly meet young photographers, let me ask a broader question: What is the fate of photography in the age of social media? Everyone takes photos now. How does that change the way you think about the present and future of this art?
AW: Certainly, an astonishing number of photographs are now being produced daily. And it’s easier to take more pretty good photographs—photographs that depict clearly and with formal coherence the world around us—in the digital age than with film. But the kind of photographs that truly intrigue me—the photographs that in their complex ambiguity hint at other kinds of meanings, that take viewers somewhere they haven’t been before—these photographs remain as elusive and as difficult to take as ever. Perhaps it’s because the line between facile photographic cleverness and significant insight is so delicate and unpredictable. Perhaps it’s also simply because the world only gives a photographer so many chances in a lifetime.
RNW: The rich tradition of photography books has long been my compass while navigating a new project, such as Robert Frank’s “The Americans” and Robert Adams’s “From the Missouri West” for “My Dakota.” So when Aperture approached us last fall about helping them launch their new educational series of photography books, I was surprised that my first thought was of our Two Looks blog, one we’d created a few years ago to connect our online community of former workshop students from around the world. With its mix of photographs—ours and other photographers’—and short text pieces, this blog became the model for “On Street Photography and the Poetic Image.” I love how organic this process was from blog to book—so I wouldn’t be surprised if its next iteration might be some sort of e-book or other online form.
Looking back, I realize that “Two Looks” showed us slowly—online posting by posting—how silence itself can be a teacher when one allows photographs to speak for themselves by pairing them with text that merely suggests or raises questions.
“On Street Photography and the Poetic Image” is really unusual in this way. It’s a “how to” book that is much more about the sensibility involved in the art, and ways about thinking about the art, than about technical things like how to use a camera. It’s a book I keep sending to friends. Since you mention silence and allude to the introspective aspect of photography, I wonder how this sits with the work you both do with cities? And why cities, anyway? I think of the work you’ve done together in Havana, with “Violet Isle,” and again in Rochester, with “Memory City,” as well as your individual projects. Do cities have a special draw for you?
AW: Since the late nineteen-sixties, I’ve been a street photographer, so the rhythms of the city have been essential to my work. From Boston and Port–au-Prince to Tijuana and Istanbul to Havana and Rochester, I have meandered through the urban world, following the ever-changing stream of street life. Sometimes, as in Port-au-Prince, I have explored the transformation of a society as expressed in the street—with the street as a kind of bellwether of social and political change. Other times, as in Istanbul, I have delved into the myriad layers of a richly complex society, often responding to the nuances of cultural contrast. And, recently, I have been trying to come to grips photographically with my home of forty years, New York.
What Rebecca and I found in Havana, and amplified considerably while working in Rochester, was that two distinct yet complementary photographic visions could visually echo the many layers of a city. In “Memory City,” I think our collaboration helped to create a richer portrait of Rochester in the year following Kodak’s declaration of Chapter 11, one that’s also a kind of meditation on film, time, and memory during what may well be the last days of film as we know it.
RNW: Since Rochester was home to women’s-rights activist Susan B. Anthony, I became intrigued with the notion of documenting ordinary women that history has long ignored. I was also guided by the words of some of the poets who’d lived in Rochester—John Ashbery, Marie Howe, Cornelius Eady, Ilya Kaminsky—especially Kaminsky’s resonant line, “Time, my twin, take me by the hand through streets of your city.” Both eventually led me to “Memory City” ’s central metaphor for film—the medium I still solely use. That fragile slip of celluloid brought to mind women’s special-occasion dresses, worn only once to a memorable event. So I decided to photograph still-lifes and portraits of Rochester women, past and present.
As his nod to his thirty-year relationship with Kodachrome—that vibrant color film Kodak discontinued in 2009—Alex decided to punctuate his digital color work in the streets of Rochester with photographs shot on his last rolls of the film. These days, Kodachrome can only be processed as black and white, which gives the film a distressed feel, as if weathered over time.
I feel the Rochester book has a strong literary quality to it; your citations in response to questions confirm that. Now I wonder where your collaboration comes from. Is it, in addition to your being married to each other, from this shared literary sensibility? I mean, we’ve seen collaborations between writers and photographers, like James Agee and Walker Evans or John Berger and Jean Mohr. Two photographers with “two distinct yet complementary” approaches in a single book is a little rarer. How do you make it work? Who decides which pictures get to stay?
RNW: A few years ago, Pico Iyer wrote, in the afterword to our joint Cuba book, “Violet Isle,” that our work sometimes rhymes. Alex and I love that notion. At times, I can pinpoint these subtle echoes or slant rhymes—such as a shared palette or an affinity for surreal or surprising moments. Other times, why two of our photographs work together remains somewhat mysterious.
AW: The editing and sequencing of our first joint book, “Violet Isle,” was a revelation. Even though our styles are quite different, we found that our photographs began to speak to one another. With each collaborative book, we’re finding that particular dialogue is different—and its unique tenor may be key to understanding each project. For instance, our juxtapositions in “Memory City” tend to be discordant—Rebecca’s ethereal images of young Rochester women clashing against my more hard-edged street photographs. Taken together, these disjunctive pairings hint at the tensions of a city struggling to transform itself yet again.
Teju Cole is a photographer, and the author of two works of fiction, “Open City” and “Every Day Is for the Thief.” He_ _contributes frequently to Page-Turner.
REBECCA NORRIS WEBB (American, b. 1956)
Originally a poet, Rebecca Norris Webb has published three photography books that explore the complicated relationship between people and the natural world — The Glass Between Us, Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba (with Alex Webb), and My Dakota, which interweaves her text and photographs from her home state of South Dakota. My Dakota was selected as one of best photography books of 2012 by PDN, Photo-Eye, and Time.
Her work has been exhibited widely, including at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Robert Klein Gallery, Boston; Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York City. Her work has appeared in Time, The New Yorker, National Geographic, and Le Monde Magazine. Teaching workshops together for Aperture Foundation and the Museum of the City of New York, among others, the Webbs are working on a book of essays and photographs, On Street Photography and the Poetic Image, to be published by Aperture in 2014. Rebecca’s second joint photography book with Alex, Memory City, will be published in spring 2014 by Radius Books.
Born in Rushville, Indiana, Norris Webb graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1989.
My Dakota, 2012
Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba, 2009
The Glass Between Us, 2006
International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown, MA
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA
North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, ND