Archive for September, 2009

TWO LOOKS: Alex and Rebecca

September 28, 2009

This is the first of an occasional column we are calling “Two Looks,” in which we will feature a creative couple’s work.  For this column, we’ll have each person select one example of his or her partner’s work to write about.  Not unexpectedly, the first column is called “Two Looks: Alex and Rebecca.” ––Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb


Alex Webb, Havana, 1993

Alex Webb, Havana, 1993

This quiet photograph of Alex’s has grown into one of my favorites in our Cuba book.  Partly, it’s because it’s the only “portrait” in Violet Isle of Fidel, which I like for a couple of reasons.  One is that it’s very indicative of the island itself, where one sees plenty of posters and billboards celebrating Che Guevara and José Martí, but few of Fidel Castro himself.  And I love the little surprise in the photo, that at first you think his right index finger is raised in the air because he’s in the midst of giving a speech or perhaps even admonishing someone (especially with the word, “Silencio,” posted on the wall to the left of the portrait), and then you notice, upon closer inspection, that his right finger is actually poised in the air because he’s playing chess.  And lastly, I find myself drawn to the sparseness and simplicity of this interior –– the drab yet welcoming yellow walls and the forlorn blue of the fan –– because it seems somehow quintessentially Cuban.––Rebecca Norris Webb


Rebecca Norris Webb, Havana, 2008

Rebecca Norris Webb, Havana, 2008

What is it about this photograph from a rooftop in Havana that so intrigues me?  Part of it is that it initially feels like a street photograph: a dominant figure in the foreground, a little figure deep in the background, with the activity centered on the latter.  This seems at first to be familiar photographic territory.  But what totally confounds my expectations is that these figures are not human, but animals, fighting cocks. And even more startling is that the rooster in the background –– his legs shaved, his wings flapping ––  looks like a little man, arms akimbo.  Then I see that he is tied to a cement block.  I am immersed in that strange, sometimes unsettling, and often beautiful world that Rebecca so often seems to discover –– her territory –– where sometimes the dramas in the natural world feel somehow human, and where sometimes her images lift off into metaphor.––Alex Webb

TWO QUESTIONS: on endings

September 21, 2009

“Two Questions” is a monthly column in which we invite former workshop participants and other photographers to submit two questions, one to Alex and one to Rebecca.  This week, photographer David Bacher asks the two questions.  You’ll find one of his photographs immediately below, and, at the end of this column, you’ll also find his bio and link to his website.

Reindeer, David Bacher

Reindeer, David Bacher

DB: Rebecca, when you are working on a project, with the long-term goal being a published book, how do you decide when you have enough photos?

RNW: Well, having just finished my second book, Violet Isle, a joint book with Alex, and nearing the completion of what I hope will be my third book, My Dakota, I guess I’d say that although each book is unique, the process is somewhat similar.  After I’ve gathered perhaps 25 to 30 images or more, I make small work prints – often no larger than 4×6 inches – and place them on a large table and create an edit.  Then I usually place that edit up on a wall in our studio, and try to visit it daily if I can.  Simultaneously, I’m also continuing to photograph the project, and then slowly trying to weave some of this new work into the rough edit.

Over the years, one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is that my work is much smarter than I am.  Although I think I know what I’m working on, the work is silently, persistently, trying to tell me what it’s truly about – which is often more complicated and contradictory and chaotic than I first saw or thought or intended.  At this point, I often feel somewhat uncomfortable and confused and frustrated, which I’ve also learned over the years, probably means I’m on the right path. The key, for me at least, is to listen deeply to what the work is trying to tell me without trying to smooth out its paradoxes or rough edges.  Often these contradictions contain the true energy of the work, its necessary tensions, what I’d even go so far as to call its “life.”  So, by looking intently and listening long and hard to the work – as I continue to photograph and weave in new work – eventually the work lets me know when it’s done, or perhaps a better way of saying it:  the work lets me know when it’s done with me.

DB: And Alex, this question also pertains to a long-term book project. When you are working, do you go out with a certain subject or place in mind, or do you just set out and wander, waiting for things to unfold?

AW: When I start one of my own personal projects, it is a bit like embarking on a journey with no clear end in sight.  I visit a place, a situation, and then I start to wander, allowing the camera and my experiences to lead me where they will, waiting – as you say – for “things to unfold.”   Of course, I may have preconceptions and prejudices – how could I not – but I try to push those to the back of my mind and respond in the moment.  The process is very visceral: I am not thinking about the place, I am “smelling” the photographic possibilities of a place.  As I spend more time in a place, as I wander more – and especially after I have looked at some of my photographs and returned – I have an increasing sense of where I need to go to complete the project.   The potential end becomes clearer.  But the process in the street remains consistently intuitive, non-rational.  I am making spontaneous visual decisions based on notions, instincts, urges, not through a more rational thought process.

David Bacher is an American/Austrian photographer living near Paris. He was born in Virginia and first came into contact with the visual arts in high school where he attended elective courses in drawing, painting, sculpture and black-and-white photography. David later studied at the University of Virginia, where he completed a double major in anthropology and economics, subjects that began to shape his views of the socio-economic issues facing the world today. After college, he moved to Vienna where he competed as a professional rower for three years. With the idea of becoming a professional photographer in mind, David moved to Aarhus, Denmark in 2004 to attend a 6-month international course in photojournalism at the Danish School of Journalism. During his stay he interned at the newspaper “Politiken” in Copenhagen and at a commercial photography studio. Following these studies, David moved to Paris where he interned with the VII Photo agency. Since 2005, he has been working as a freelance photographer for individuals, corporations, and magazines. In his spare time, David enjoys taking street photos, listening to music, reading, and hiking in the mountains.

MAKING BOOKS: Finding a Writer

September 14, 2009

Over the past few years, participants in Rebecca’s and my workshops have increasingly asked about the process of finding an author to write an introduction or afterword to a book of photographs.  Every book is different: Some books call for silence –– little or no text; others seem to demand the (textual) voice of the photographer; and others seem to benefit from another, complementary voice.  In many ways the latter is the trickiest: How will a given writer illuminate in words what is essentially a visual experience as well as expand on the viewer’s understanding of the subject of the book?  In the case of Violet Isle, our upcoming book on Cuba, we had read a wonderful essay on Cuba by Pico Iyer in his book, Falling Off the Map.  His notion of Cuba as the “ambiguous island” seemed to parallel our photographic sense of the enigma of Cuba.  Rebecca and I were fortunate that he very kindly agreed to write an afterword to our book.  Below is an excerpt, along with two photographs — one of mine, one of Rebecca’s — that Pico discusses in his essay. ––Alex Webb

Alex Webb, Cienfuegos, Cuba, 2007

Alex Webb, Cienfuegos, Cuba, 2007

RNW, Havana, Cuba, 2007

Rebecca Norris Webb, Havana, Cuba, 2007


By Pico Iyer

As soon as I began paging through the wondrous images assembled here [in Violet Isle], on a winter morning in my two-room home in rural Japan, I felt that the movement and the stillness that lie at the heart of Cuba –– and its neverending conundrums –– were assembled in this book with a tension and vitality I’d never seen before. Alex’s work startles and shocks, as always, with the complexity and crowdedness of its frames, perfect match to a country where everyone is always around you, though not doing very much at all. You feel the laughter on those faces, and also the torpor, the long hours passed in waiting for the next drama to pass through town. The energy in the frames works oddly against the sense of suspended motion, so that you begin to sense the ordered chaos that somehow helps Cuba tick along.

A fence shapes our vision of constant motion. A bright-eyed boy sits in front of the veiled gaze of an elder. “Violent” is just “violet” shifted around a little. There are even animals along his busy streets.

And Rebecca’s work rhymes with his partly because her interiors are equally evocative, and their stillness takes us into a realm of longing and tenacity. The beady eye of a thing with feathers catches me, as I note the tightness of its taloned grip; a fluffy, seemingly lovable dog puts its paw on a wonky machine. The shining colors in a feather, humble and sometimes elide into the shadows and the backdrops all around.

It is as if she catches the melancholy interiors, and all the quirky secrets kept there, one reason, perhaps, why the island still survives, in spite of everything. In many of her images I see the beauty that’s always hiding out in Cuba––on rooftops, in backyards, in the dusty corner of an unlit room. People show you their treasures, and some of them break your heart because they’re so shoddy and worn and speak for such privation. Some of them break your heart because they show you what these magnificent and resourceful people could do if only they were given a chance.

In all her work here, though, you feel the tight quarters in which Cubans live—and their longing for flight. Life and confinement flap against each other in her images. On the one hand, Cuba seems to be a kind of taxidermist’s island where life has been artificially preserved, or ossified; on the other, you have only to look at her reptiles and chickens to feel the life there. Even in the graveyard, the dogs seem to be breathing.

So image dances with image in their duet, and Alex’s picture of a woman (of what age?) against a wall with drawings of boats heading off to other places echoes Rebecca’s images of birds taking off, to claim a freedom that their owners lack. The spilling abundance of Cuba’s street life (in Alex’s work) opens out onto the hushed richness of its homes (in Rebecca’s). The result is the shadow world that I recall, which leaves you never knowing how much to laugh and how much to grieve.

In Alex’s work, urgent, immediate and full of information, I always feel a sense of mystery, and all that lies beyond the frame, unspoken. In Rebecca’s, animals and surfaces look back at you with such direct clarity that they become equally perplexing, unfathomable. The book you hold in your hand is as alive and shifting and contrapuntal a portrait of the violet island as any I have seen. It catches the raised finger as well as the stopped clock, the life and uproar as well as the long spaces between. You say you’ve never been to the island of seductive surfaces and the depths they contain or try to push down? You have now, I think, if you’ve lived for a while with the work of these far-seeing—and perfectly complementary––artists.

The above excerpt is from Pico Iyer’s afterword to Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba (photographs by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb; text by Pico Iyer) published by Radius Books, November 2009, reprinted by permission of Pico Iyer and the publisher.

Pico Iyer is one of the most revered and respected travel writers alive today. His essays, reviews and other writings have appeared in Time, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Harper’s and Conde Naste Traveler.  His books include Falling Off the Map, Cuba and the Night, and The Open Road.


September 8, 2009


We photographers often talk about serendipity in the process of photographing, yet rarely do we acknowledge its mysterious presence in the editing and sequencing of projects.  Occasionally the building of a book just seems to evolve organically –– with serendipity often playing a role.

I remember the morning last spring when the four of us –– Rebecca, myself, and two of our publishers, David Chickey and Darius Himes of Radius Books –– first settled on the two photographs for the front and back covers of Violet Isle (my photograph above of the unbound covers was taken on press in Singapore this past July.). As soon as David Chickey, the designer, mentioned his idea of the fold-out covers for Violet Isle, these two images immediately sprang to Rebecca’s and my minds.  Within moments, David and Darius agreed with our choices. Only later did Rebecca and I realize that the front cover ––her picture of the brilliantly colored pigeon’s wing –– and the back cover –– my photo of the baseball stadium at dusk ––represent the chronological bookends of the project, an unexpected bit of serendipity. I had taken the photograph of the two young men standing atop their bicycles watching a baseball game in Sancti Spiritus, on my first trip to Cuba in 1993.  Rebecca had taken hers on a rooftop in Havana in 2008, the last year we photographed in Cuba, some eleven trips later. ––ALEX WEBB


During three of our 11 trips to Cuba, Alex and I visited Ediciones Vigía, the handmade book workshop in Matanzas, a small city not far from Havana.  These wonderful and playful handmade books are often made out of very ordinary materials –– cardboard, string, yarn –– with the workshop’s more elaborate book designs incorporating dresses, dolls, kites, shoe boxes, and even the underside of an umbrella.

So much to my and Alex’s surprise and delight, our designer at Radius Books, David Chickey, had also seen a collection of these books, which in part inspired his design of Violet Isle, including the cardboard slipcase (photographed above by Alex).  Talk about serendipity!

This summer there was an exhibition of these unusual handmade books in New York at the Grolier Club, an exhibition that since has traveled to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  To see a selection of the Ediciones Vigía books, please follow the link below.––REBECCA NORRIS WEBB