Rebecca Norris Webb: My Dakota

My Dakota. Photographs by Rebecca Norris Webb.

An interview with Sarah Rhodes

My Dakota reads like a novel or short film. Its narrative draws you in, punctures your heart and lets you go. It is devastating. The images feel layered with references from painting, cinema and literature. As a poet and writer, have you have applied visual language devices used in literature into your photography?

During the darkest time of my grief, 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.

The only poems that spoke to me during those difficult first months were villanelles:  Roethke’s “The Waking,” Bishop’s “One Art,” Kees’ “1926.”  Each refrain is repeated four times –– like Roethke’s haunting refrain, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow” –– and each time, the refrain’s meaning shifts, questions, circles back, deepens.

If those villanelles hadn’t spoken to me when I was most grief struck, perhaps I would never have followed the strong pull of My Dakota’s repeated images ––apples, deer, waves, brown coat, swallows’ nests ––both in my photographs and in my spare text pieces and found the book’s organic rhythm and sequence.  If those villanelles hadn’t spoken to me, perhaps I would never have eventually seen that the book’s structure–– whose repeated images act like visual refrains–– is a form that echoes the sometimes meandering, sometimes circular, sometimes expansive journey of my own grief.

Were you reading any texts that may have influenced you during this project?

Besides the villanelles I mentioned, I found myself attracted to very dreamy, elegiac novels, often books that interweave loss and landscape. Two of these poetic novels were Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping.  Only relatively recently did I learn that Woolf’s novel was an elegy for one of her brothers, so I guess more than serendipity led me to The Waves.

Robinson, a Westerner like me, spoke to me in different ways.  Housekeeping is a haunted, elegiac novel set in the Western landscape as a place of loss and lost dreams, but with girls and women as the protagonists instead of ranchers and cowboys.  Unlike the traditional vision of the West as John Wayne and gunplay, Robinson’s vision of the West is  “mysterious, aloof, and rapturously gentle” –– a vision that is akin to my own vision of the West.

Did the visual arts more generally influence your colour palette, light or framing of the image? For example, “Crab Apples” is loaded with references from still life painting, abstract painting, the bible among other genres and disciplines.

The tradition of the still life, including the momento mori, is very much present in this work.   I guess one could say that death is present in every frame of this book.

I’ve also long been attracted to 17th Century Dutch still life paintings, so I’m sure those paintings are in the back of my mind any time I attempt a photographic still life. “Crab Apples” shares the same kind of shallow depth of field as found in this tradition –– which is also a trait of the cinematic close up.   However, instead of the typical dark background often used in many of the Dutch paintings, the background of “Crab Apples” has a bluish hue, which perhaps adds to the confusion of perspective:  Are these particular apples “fallen” or “falling”?  Or could it be that these crab apples are “fallen” and “falling” simultaneously?

If it is the latter, then the past exists alongside the present, which seems on the surface like a paradox, but actually echoes the way the grieving mind works.  To use a metaphor from painting:  the past, instead of existing in the background of your life –– and hopefully giving it richness and perspective –– exists during grief in the foreground alongside the present, skewing your perspective at times so that it’s flattened, confused, askew.  So you often feel lost in your loss.

Miguel Rio Branco says the cinematic genre ‘poetic documentary’ has influenced his work in terms of the image as a series, as a potential discourse. How do you feel this genre relates to your own work?

Interesting question…I’ve long been attracted to Rio Branco’s use of color, which seems very personal and very visceral.

I hadn’t thought about the influence of “poetic documentary” on my own work.   I guess, thinking about it a bit now, I would say the movement of My Dakota through the repetition of images –– instead of through a linear narrative  –– certainly has some similarities.

Do images from your dreams find their way into your work? Is there a relationship between dream and photographic narratives?

Those first months after my brother died, my dreams had such a strong pull on me that when I’d awake, I’d sometimes wish I were still dreaming.  Added to that, I wasn’t sleeping well and I was travelling alone in parts of South Dakota that I’d never visited.  So that difficult time in my life was a blur of motel rooms, back roads, and dreams of my brother.

I do, however, remember dreaming about one particularly elusive image that I’d tried to photograph that first fall after my brother died.  On a deserted country road just east of the Missouri River one overcast November day, I was startled by a flock of some thousand blackbirds.  I was mesmerized by how they flew through the stormy, unsettled Western sky as if they were one huge, dark, undulating, ravenous creature, picking clean the remains of the corn and sunflower fields in the last days of autumn.

For days, when I’d least expect it, I’d see the blackbirds descend upon a field.  It didn’t seem to matter how quickly I stopped the car and raised the camera to my eye.  Inevitably, the dark flock vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

For that entire week, I kept dreaming about those blackbirds.  Finally, one afternoon near the small town of Gray Goose, South Dakota, I saw the flock hovering over a field of sunflowers. This time, I was somewhat more prepared –– I had my camera around my neck, and, thanks to the dirt road’s wide shoulder, I could quickly pull over and rush toward the field –– crouching as low as I could so I wouldn’t scare off the skittish birds.   I remember wondering what I’d say to the farmer if he caught me trespassing on his land.  Suddenly, worried that the blackbirds would disappear again, I stopped and clicked a few frames.

Then something happened that I wasn’t expecting –– the flock lingered in the field.  Were there more seeds than usual to feed on?  Were the towering sunflowers hiding me from the skittish birds?  Slowly and quietly, I inched closer until I was standing directly behind one of the tallest sunflowers in the field.  Beneath the sunflower’s large bowed head, I clicked the shutter again and again until the dark flock vanished once more into the cold, grey, blustery November sky.

I think obsession is intrinsically musical –– think of the refrain in both music and poetry.  It’s the mind working something out through the body with its strong, steady, insistent tempo of breath and heartbeat.  Over and over.  And over and over again.  Like a thorn in one’s flesh working its way out.

I sometimes show My Dakota as a multimedia piece accompanied by the melancholic “Black Hills of South Dakota,” by Nellie McKay.  I hope to have a version of it up on our website or blog sometime later this year.  However, when holding the book in one’s hands and experiencing it, I think silence is the best accompaniment.  Looking back, I think the text pieces are so spare because my grief was composed mainly of silence. “Words are part of the silence that can be spoken,” noted the writer Jeanette Winterson.

Did your pictures start to change once you decided to make your South Dakota project into an elegy for your brother?

A few years ago, I remember showing the photographs to Linda Hasselstrom, a South Dakota rancher, who besides being a poet and essayist is an insightful editor, as well as a woman who’s experienced the loss of a husband.  During one of her Windbreak House Writing Retreats at her ranch near Hermosa, South Dakota.  I was trying to figure out what I had left to photograph and said to her, “Linda, I see summer, fall, and winter in these photographs, but not spring.”

 “When you’re grieving, there isn’t any spring,” she replied.

Was it a difficult decision to share this deeply personal experience so publicly?

Yes, it was especially difficult showing the work at the beginning of the project, which is one of the reasons I put it away for a few years, and didn’t show it to anyone.  I had never attempted such a personal body of work before, and besides feeling exposed and vulnerable, I was afraid that it was too personal and, ultimately, only for my family.   Slowly, while editing and sequencing Alex’s and my joint Cuba book, Violet Isle, I started to show the work once again to workshop participants.  If it hadn’t been for a few, very vocal, insistent students from around the world, I don’t think there would have been a My Dakota book.

Alex Webb described your work as emotionally complex. Can you explain what that means?

He often talks about our two different ways of seeing as being influenced by the two forefathers of street photography.  His work tends to be formally complex, in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson, with layers upon visual layers, pictures inside of pictures, crowded frames often coming close to the edge of chaos.  My work, he always says, is more emotionally complex, following in the footsteps of one of my photographic inspirations, Andre Kertesz.  Alex describes it as work that may be simpler formally, but whose images and tone sometimes evoke complex or contradictory emotions, akin to what an image in a poem evokes or suggests in the reader.

Now that you’ve completed My Dakota, how would you describe your way of seeing.  Even though your three books cover very different terrain, they seem to be tied by something elusive and mysterious.  How would you, as a poet, describe this?

A photographer friend of mine, Greta Pratt, said the same thing to me when she first saw My Dakota –– that all three books are tied by my way of seeing.  I’ve been thinking about her comment ever since, and I’m not sure I can fully explain it myself, but I’ll give it a try. At its most basic, a photographer’s vision is nothing more than a photographer’s particular gaze.  For me, mine is often dreamy and somewhat askew, as if looking at the world out of the corner of my eye.

Was my gaze shaped by the fact I was deathly shy as a child, someone who’d steal sidelong glances at the world, as if cheating in school?  Or perhaps reading too much poetry played a role? “Tell the truth but tell is slant,” to quote Emily Dickinson, a poet who’s long been a favourite of mine. Or could it be I was born with this skewed, dreamy vision?  For instance, I’m the only right-handed photographer I know who photographs with her left eye, which is rather odd in and of itself.  Anyway, I don’t know how or why my vision was formed.  Perhaps it’s a strange mix of all three.

What I am slowly beginning to see, however, is that My Dakota has an added weight not found as consistently in the other two books.  And this weight is both physical and metaphysical –– a pronghorn antelope seemingly lying by the shore of a lake, but on closer inspection, the creature is actually frozen solid and perfectly preserved, and the lake is pure ice. I keep thinking of the line by the poet Rilke, “I’m looking for a contradiction to inhabit.”  For me, perhaps My Dakota is the contradiction I’m trying to inhabit  –– my brother’s death and his eternity.

You are quoted as saying one of the most common mistakes is not listening to the photographs you have taken. Describe this process?

My work is much wiser than I am.  I think I may know what a particular body of work is about, but all the while, the work keeps trying to tell me–– quietly and persistently ––what it is really about.

Now I’m a pretty stubborn person, and it’s taken me much of my life to learn to be humbled by my work, to learn to listen and to trust it, to learn to follow it wherever it may lead me.  I think one of my most difficult creative lessons has been learning how to attend to the work, not to intend. Looking back at My Dakota, I now realize that I was photographing this particularly dark time in my life in order to try to absorb it, to distill it, and, ultimately, to let go of it.  Not only did my first grief change me, but making My Dakota changed me as well, both as a human being and as a bookmaker.


My Dakota will soon be published by Radius Books. For those in New York, please join Rebecca for a signing of her book at the ICP Store on May 24th, 2012. Details available here.