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Grief Lesson: Rebecca Norris Webb's Photo Book as Elegy

Interview by Conor Risch


Rebecca Norris Webb My Dakota
© Rebecca Norris Webb

In 2006, a year after photographer and writer Rebecca Norris Webb began a personal project photographing the vast landscape in her home state, South Dakota, her brother died suddenly of heart failure. A friend suggested she channel her grief into the project and transform it into an elegy for her lost sibling. The photographs and text she wrote were published earlier this year as My Dakota (Radius), a poetic and highly personal book that is at once peaceful and unsettling.

PDN corresponded via e-mail with Webb about My Dakota. Here is what she wrote:

A condensed version of this text appeared in the Exposures section of the September 2012 issue of PDN.

PDN: Did you have a clear sense of what South Dakota meant to you when you began the project?

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 as “a permanent visitor,” to quote the writer Dawn Powell, because New York had never quite felt like home.

The South Dakota landscape, on the other hand, felt welcoming each time I returned to visit my parents in the Black Hills.

PDN: Did your understanding of it change while you worked? If so, can you explain how it did and tell me a bit about why it did?

RNW: Photographing that first year, 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, intimate, and personal 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 in the Badlands and prairies that first year, I was hoping ultimately to be able to capture visually what all that space feels like to someone who grew up there.

PDN: How did you determine where to go during your time in South Dakota? Did you plan anything, or did you simply wander?

RNW: I would tend to start and end in my hometown in the southern Black Hills—Hot Springs—where I’d walk and wander and photograph some of my old haunts while visiting my parents. From there, I’d then drive to places in the state I’d never visited—such as the entire length of the Missouri River Valley and the Glacial Lakes region. In these unfamiliar landscapes, I’d often drive rather aimlessly along the back roads and stop only when I came across an image that intrigued me for some reason.

A few months after my brother died, one of the first images that spoke to me when I was most grief struck was a flock of some thousand blackbirds that moved like a single, dark, undulating, ravenous creature as it flew through the stormy, unsettled Western sky, picking clean the remains of the corn and sunflower fields in the last days of autumn.

PDN: What effect did Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn’s suggestion to transform your project into an elegy have?

RNW: Elizabeth had just finished her first book, The Empty Room, which charts the arduous journey of her grief for [the loss of] her only brother. So her suggestion gave me a kind of creative road map, encouraging me to set off on my own meandering journey through the South Dakota landscape fueled by the often unsettling emotions that accompany sibling loss—fear, sadness, guilt, anger, confusion, restlessness.

For months, all it seemed I could do was drive and photograph. I don’t even like to drive. And I was always getting lost. Lost and loss. For months.

In addition, I felt even more lost without my writing for solace, since another response to my brother’s death was writer’s block. At the end of that first year of grieving, however, one spare line came to me when I awoke alone one morning in a motel in the badlands: Does loss have its own geography?

That line reminded me of some of those haunted, resonant refrains of the villanelles I’d been re-reading after my brother died, such as [Theodore] Roethke’s “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” This traditional, often elegiac poetic form centers on repeated, often elegiac lines.

It wasn’t until the end of the project that my writing fully returned and I started writing a series of these spare text pieces, which sometimes came in the form of a question: Does the prairie long to be an inland sea again?

PDN: In many of the images we are looking through something, or there is a reflection or a unique or confounding or even disorienting perspective. What roles do perspective and layering play in your images?

RNW: I photograph very intuitively. Looking at some of these disorienting photographs now—where it’s difficult to distinguish the background from the foreground, for instance—I realize that kind of confusion was very much a part of my grief, especially when I was most grief struck.

Those first months after my brother died, my dreams of him seemed more real than when I awoke to a world without him. Added to that, I wasn’t sleeping well and I was traveling 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.

During that time, I not only felt confused while photographing in South Dakota, but I also felt confused when I returned to Brooklyn [New York] to edit the film and to try to make sense of what I’d been doing. I remember showing the work to my friend [photographer] Eugene Richards, who at that time was traveling back and forth from Brooklyn to the Great Plains to work on his book The Blue Room. When he asked me how things were coming along with My Dakota, I told him I wasn’t sure what I was doing. He said to me in his soft, gentle voice, “Becky, sometimes confusion is good.”

PDN: It's interesting to me that you say in the book that South Dakota's landscape was one of the few things that eased your unsettled heart, because for me, so many of the photographs in the book are unsettling, and I can't help but imagine how seeing and photographing some of these things might magnify feelings of heartbreak, sadness and distress. I am not sure there is a question in there… Can seeing and photographing unsettling things help put you at ease?

RNW: I know it seems like a contradiction, but the elegy—and I consider My Dakota a kind of elegy—is a traditional, poetic form expansive enough to hold both life and death within it, because ultimately it’s about expressing very alive feelings for someone who is no more. “To grieve is to lament, to mourn, to let sorrow inhabit one’s very being,” notes the poet Ed Hirsch. “Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish—to let others vanish—without leaving a poetic record,” he adds.

PDN: As you were editing the book did you intend to create a narrative arc, or did you intend the images to offer glimpses, rather than a story with a beginning, middle and end?

RNW: My Dakota is the circuitous journey of my grief through the South Dakota landscape where I grew up, a photographic road trip that was sometimes meandering, sometimes halting, sometimes expansive, sometimes circular.

Since this circuitous road trip had far from a linear structure—literally and emotionally—I looked to poetry for the structure and rhythm, specifically to the often elegiac villanelle form, which centers on two refrains that are repeated four times each.

PDN: How did editing the images and text together affect the editing process? Did the work of integrating the text change how you understood the photographs, and how the photographs relate to one another?

RNW: It’s taken me much of life to learn to trust my creative process, an often slow, meandering path towards understanding life and death and the world through the process of photographing—and sometimes writing about—images that intrigue me for some reason.

An integral part of this process has been learning to trust that my images are wiser than I am. It can take me weeks, months and sometimes even years to understand what they are trying to say to me. This slow process of discovery happens in the editing and sequencing of a body of work, a process I call “re-vision” because it’s akin to the revision process I use when writing poetry, a kind of creative excavation to uncover and to begin to understand what the work is truly about versus what I thought it was about initially.

Weaving together My Dakota’s text and photographs brought home to me the importance of repetition to the rhythm and structure of this body of work since the spare text pieces all centered around the same reoccurring images I’d been photographing: deer, apples, brown coat, prairie. Ultimately, this re-vision process uncovered for me what the work was trying to tell me all along—that repetition was an integral part of my grieving mind and heart and body trying over and over and over again to inhabit the contradiction, as the poet [Rainer Marie] Rilke would say, of my brother’s death and my family’s very much alive love for him.

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