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My Dakota

October 18, 2013 - February 2, 2014
Artist's Talk, Book Signing and Exhibition Opening Reception: Friday, October 18, 6:00-8:00 pm
"It’s taken me much of life to understand and accept that my images are wiser than I am. It often takes me weeks and sometimes months to understand what they are trying to say to me.” --Rebecca Norris Webb
“In 2005, I set out to photograph my home state of South Dakota, a sparsely populated frontier state on the Great Plains with more buffalo, pronghorn, coyotes, mule deer, ring-necked pheasants, and prairie dogs than people. It’s a landscape dominated by space and silence and solitude, by brutal wind and extreme weather. I was trying to capture a more intimate and personal view of the West. I was trying to capture what all that space feels like to someone who grew up there. A year into the project, however, everything changed. One of my brothers died unexpectedly. For months, one of the few things that eased my unsettled heart was the landscape of South Dakota. It seemed all I could do was drive through the badlands and prairies and photograph. I began to wonder: Does loss have its own geography?” – Rebecca Norris Webb


“For seven years, I’d been working in cramped urban interiors with artificial light in zoos, aquariums and natural history museums in some 25 cities around the world for my book “The Glass Between Us.” I was ready to do something completely different. So I made a few exploratory photography trips back to the wide, open spaces of South Dakota. I was hoping to capture a more intimate and personal view of the West than I’d seen before. I was hoping to capture what all that space feels like to someone who grew up there.

All of a sudden, the project became fueled by a sense of urgency, specifically my own overwhelming restlessness, which was my initial and very visceral response to my brother’s death. For months, all it seemed I could do was drive in the South Dakota landscape and photograph. I don’t even like to drive. And I was always getting lost….

Working in the badlands and the prairies, I felt even more lost without my writing for solace, since another response to my brother’s death was writer’s block. When I wasn’t driving and photographing, however, I did find some comfort rereading a handful of villanelles that I’d memorized as a poetry student. The villanelle is a poetic form dominated by two refrains, each which repeats four times, often giving the form a haunted, elegiac tone. Elizabeth Bishop’s refrain, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” kept running through my mind, as did Roethke’s, “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.”

I found that the deeper I delved into “My Dakota,” the more I began to trust that repetition was an integral part of my grieving process. I found myself drawn again and again to variations of the same images — apples, deer, waves, swallows’ nests, brown coat — both in my photographs and, ultimately, in my spare text pieces, which only appeared the last year of the project. These short pieces often came to me whole when I’d awake in the morning while traveling alone.”


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 think my images slowly move me along toward understanding the world. “The imagination gropes forward, feeling its way towards what it needs…reaches out, into the landscape in front of us,” to quote the poet Mark Doty, and these images act like a “container for emotion and idea… [to] hold what’s too slippery or charged or difficult to touch.”

Abandoned Farmhouse I

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.

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.” --In Interview with David Chickey.

Originally a poet, I was attracted early on to the resonant, emotionally complicated, lyrical work of Andre Kertesz. I was also influenced by two 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 photo book, and eventually led to my interweaving the two in my own work. Yet there was something about the Nebraskan-born Morris’s photo-text book, in which he interweaves his own writing with his black-and-white photographs, that touched something deeper and more inexplicable in me. Morris’s work is aloof yet engaging, stark yet mysterious, spacious yet intimate: it is work that suggests the many paradoxes that make up the Great Plains itself, where, like Morris, I also grew up.

A Wright Morris still life is so quiet and plain and bare-bones — a farmer’s two tattered jackets and cap hanging in a row on simple hooks — it suggests the Nebraska prairie itself, with few if any trees or houses to fetter the mind, the memory, the imagination. And his spare text pieces evoke a different kind of landscape, a kind of private and interior Nebraska, one that suggests what all that emptiness feels like to an insider, someone who grew up on the Great Plains, and the Great Plains “grew up in you,” to quote Morris.” --In Interview with James Estrin, in Prairie, Poetry and Loss-New York Times.


Rebecca Norris Webb has published three photography books that explore the complicated relationship between people and the natural world — The Glass Between Us (2006), Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba (with Alex Webb) (2009), and My Dakota (2012). My Dakota interweaves her text and photographs and was selected as one of best photography books of 2012 by PDN, Photo-Eye, and Time.

Norris Webb’s photographs have been exhibited internationally, including at the George Eastman House Museum; Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York; the Dahl Arts Center, South Dakota; the North Dakota Museum of Art, the Robert Klein Gallery, Boston and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her work has appeared in Time, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, National Geographic, and Le Monde Magazine. She is currently completing two joint book projects with Alex Webb, Memory City, which will be published in the spring of 2014 by Radius Books and Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb: On Street Photography and the Poetic Image which is currently in preparation.

Click HERE for more information about Rebecca Norris Webb.

All photographs are Dye Coupler Prints.

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