Interview with the Artist: Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb
Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb will be at the Cleveland Museum of Art on the weekend of July 17-19 to give two talks and to teach a workshop that will concentrate on helping both professional and amateur photographers discover their own unique way of seeing photographically. Best known for his vibrant and complex color work from Latin America and the Caribbean, Alex Webb has published 11 books, including most recently Memory City (with Rebecca Norris Webb), about film, memory, and time in Rochester, NY, in the year following Kodak’s bankruptcy. His work has been exhibited worldwide, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and his photographs have been published in The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other publications.
Originally a poet, Rebecca Norris Webb often interweaves her text and photographs in her books and exhibitions, including My Dakota, which is currently on display at CMA. Her five critically acclaimed books provide a glimpse into how we as humans interact with the natural world — a rich but often complicated relationship. Her work has been exhibited extensively, including at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and her photographs have been published in The New Yorker, Time and other publications.
Before their arrival, we at CMA had a chance to interview the creative couple about working together and apart on their various artistic endeavors, including making their joint books and exhibitions, as well as teaching photography workshops around the world. Read below to get a sense of what you can expect from their upcoming CMA workshop, joint lecture, and My Dakota gallery talk — as well as to learn more about what inspires them, including how their own creative journeys began.
CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART (CMA): What do you hope people will learn from attending Finding Your Vision: Weekend Workshop with Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb?
ALEX WEBB (AW): Rebecca and I hope that taking this workshop helps people begin to figure out who they are as photographers. All of us are assaulted by images daily. In the face of this, how does one connect with one’s inner self to perceive the world on one’s own terms, not on the terms of others? We hope our workshop will help participants begin to answer this question for themselves.
REBECCA NORRIS WEBB (RNW): We’ve now taught workshops together for some 15 years on six continents. Again and again, many of our students — no matter which part of the world they hail from — say the same thing: Our workshop taught them how images “talk to one another,” which allowed them to begin to understand how to select and sequence their own images.
CMA: How does having both veteran photographers and serious amateurs in the same workshop enhance the attendee’s experience?
AW: Often the creative leaps that less-experienced photographers make can startle those with greater experience into reexamining there own work. This sometimes sparks a new direction for seasoned photographers — as well as renewed enthusiasm for their own photography.
RNW: Over the years, we’ve also been nicely surprised that it seems the more varied our students are — including differences in experience, age, culture, photographic tradition — the more successful the workshop is. We’re not entirely sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because if there’s one trait most of our students tend to share, it’s a curiosity about the world. Additionally, since we’re both naturally collaborative, our workshops often echo this, with each workshop creating its own variation of a photographic community, one in which many of its members continue to connect long after the workshop is over.
CMA: Alex and Rebecca, you are presenting a joint lecture during the workshop. What initially made you and Rebecca decide to collaborate on some books and projects together and keep others separate?
AW: Though we had worked with each other for some years editing and critiquing each other’s work, our first full collaboration, Violet Isle — a book on Cuba that interweaves our photographs — was a bit of a surprise. It emerged organically. We were working independently on two separate projects and had made 10 trips to Cuba. Somehow, after our 10th trip, we hit on the notion of combining our work. I’m not how or why we came up with this notion. But as we began to interweave our respective images, we slowly realized that different kinds of meanings were beginning to emerge. Our photographs began to talk to each other. We realized the collaboration was producing a more complex portrait of this ambiguous island. Certain projects, however, have always seemed uniquely suited to one or the other of us. South Dakota and its weathers has always been Rebecca’s territory. With its starting point in poetry, her creative journey often charts the natural world she’s photographed — including the American West where she came of age — and simultaneously her own inner landscape. On the other hand, I’ve been more drawn to the socio-politically charged world of Haiti or the US-Mexico Border — places of cultural conflict and paradox. For me, photographing in Haiti, where intense color seems embedded in the culture, directly led to my working in color. Unlike the gray-brown reticence of my New England background, the vibrant and unsettling world of Haiti changed me not only as a photographer, but as a human being.
Rearview Mirror, from My Dakota, 2005–11. Rebecca Norris Webb (American, born 1956). Type-C photographic print; 26 x 35 ½ in. Courtesy of the artist and Rapid City Arts Council / Dahl Arts Center
CMA: Rebecca, what was the inspiration behind the title, “Slant Rhymes”?
RNW: In his afterword to Violet Isle, the writer Pico Iyer wrote that our photographs sometimes “rhyme.” Alex and I love this notion. Now having worked collaboratively on three joint books — including more recently Memory City and Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on Street Photography and the Poetic Image — we’ve slowly learned how our photographs “talk to one another.” This is sometimes thanks to a shared palette or tone, sometimes thanks to our shared affinity for surprising or surreal moments, and sometimes thanks to something more elusive and mysterious that we don’t fully understand. That said, since our photographic styles are quite different, “Slant Rhymes” seemed a fitting title to describe our joint work. In poetry, it’s a term for a “near rhyme” — a pair of words that share similar but not perfect sounds, such as “green/dream” or “eye/light.”
CMA: Alex, you have highlighted different parts of the world with your photography. How do you approach photographing in a culture that’s not your own?
AW: I approach each place slowly, quietly, trying to feel out the particular nuances of a given country or society. In some places, people seem to almost embrace the presence of a photographer; others seem to resist it. What works for a photographer in Havana may not work in London. Whereas in Morocco people often shy away from being photographed by outsiders, in India, they’re so curious about strangers, that later on, one often discovers unexpected smiling faces peering into the edges of one’s photographs. In the end, it’s not only what the world gives the photographer, it’s also what the photographer brings to the world.
©Alex Webb, Erie, Penn., 2010, from The Suffering of Light
If the photographer is nervous in the street, people around him will also feel nervous. If he approaches situations with a sense of ease, or a sense of humor — and also with seriousness, gravity, and respect for the culture — he may often discover that he’ll be welcomed into that world. Ultimately, how long a photographer can linger in any given situation is largely thanks to the grace of others.
CMA: Rebecca, you’ll be giving a gallery talk at the “My Dakota” exhibition at CMA on Sunday afternoon, July 19th, at 3:30 pm, which will include your discussing the making of “My Dakota” and the story behind some of the photographs. Could you tell us a little about your creative process and the story behind one of your favorite “My Dakota” images in the CMA exhibition?
RNW: My creative journeys typically start with an image I see in the world — sometimes once, sometimes repeatedly — an image that for some reason gets under my skin. That was very much the case for one of my favorite images in the “My Dakota” exhibition at CMA, “Blackbirds.” That autumn after my brother died unexpectedly, my response to this first death of an immediate family member was a kind of restlessness. It seemed all I could do was drive and drive through the badlands and prairies of South Dakota and photograph. Funny thing is, I don’t even like to drive. And I was always getting lost — in hard rains, heat waves. Lost and loss for months. Then one afternoon, I saw a flock of blackbirds — thousands of them — flying through the stormy Western sky as if they were one huge, dark, ravenous creature, picking clean the remains of the sunflower fields in the last days of autumn. 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 soon as it had appeared.
For that entire week, I dreamed about those blackbirds. Finally, one afternoon near the small town of Gray Goose, South Dakota, I saw the flock hovering above a field of sunflowers. I climbed over the barbed wire fence, and rushed into the field, wondering what I’d say to the farmer if he caught me trespassing on his land. Then something happened that I wasn’t expecting—the flock lingered. 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 its large bowed head, I clicked the shutter again and again until the dark flock vanished once more into the cold, gray, blustery November sky.
CMA: What or who inspired your passion for photography?
AW: The first two photography books that excited me were Robert Frank’s The Americans and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment: Frank’s work for its spontaneity and edge, Cartier-Bresson’s for its sense of form and the moment. But many other things have influenced me, especially novelists and painters. My passion for photography comes out of a belief in taking a certain kind of questioning and often complex photograph. I like photographs that remain a bit mysterious, a little enigmatic, that pose questions rather than provide answers.
RNW: Originally a poet, I found my writing deserted me after college. Looking back, I think the kind of lyric poetry I was writing then didn’t contain enough of the wider world — nor my curiosity about it. My response to writer’s block was to buy a small camera and travel for a year, hoping my photographs would spark my poetry when I returned. Instead, I fell in love with photography. I realized that the eye focusing on those images in my poetry was the same eye looking through the lens.
I think Wright Morris, the Nebraska writer and photographer, said it best: “I don’t give up the camera eye when I write, merely the camera.” So early on as a photographer, I found myself drawn to photographers and filmmakers who have a poetic eye — such as Andre Kertesz, Robert Frank, Josef Sudek, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and later Luigi Ghirri, Saul Leiter, and the filmmakers Andrei Tarkovsky, Jane Campion, and Krystof Kieslowski. Additionally, I was influenced by two early books that combine text and images: Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Wright Morris’s God’s Country and My People. Both bodies of work expanded my way of looking at the photobook, and eventually led to my interweaving the two forms in my own work.
CMA: What advice would you give aspiring photographers who want to improve and advance their work?
AW: Believe in yourself and follow your photographic obsessions wherever they may lead you.
RNW: Learn to listen to your photographs. They are often wiser than you are.
To find out more about the Finding Your Vision workshop or the “My Dakota” exhibit, click here. A description, and listing of events taking place during the workshop can also be found on the page. Keep up with Rebecca and Alex on their blog "Two Looks"
Comment below on what inspires your photography.
**As of 7/8/15 tickets for the workshop have been sold out, we're sorry for any inconveniences this may cause**
Tori Laser is a junior at John Carroll University studying art history with a focus on communications. She is interning this summer in the Communications and Marketing Department at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
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