Archive for January, 2020

On Wright Morris and Photo-Texts

January 29, 2020

Wright Morris, White-Sided Grain Elevator, Nebraska, 1940


Born in the Great Plains state of Nebraska, Wright Morris was a pioneer of what he called “photo-texts,” books that combine his photographs and words— most notably The Inhabitants (1946), The Home Place (1948), and God’s Country and My People (1968). More often than not, he focused on his home state, creating a unique and symbiotic relationship between his writings and his 4×5 images: “Two separate mediums are employed for two distinct views,” Wright said in an interview. “Only when refocused in the mind’s eye will the third view result.”

Beginning in 1934, Morris explored this new creative territory steadily for some fifteen years. At their best, Morris’s paired words and photographs do indeed shine. The lyrical text below accompanies his photograph White-Sided Grain Elevator, Nebraska, 1940, in The Home Place, which touches on the widespread loss of farms in drought-ravaged eastern Nebraska during the Great Depression:

There’s a simple reason for grain elevators, as there is for everything, but the force behind the reason, the reason for the reason, is the land and the sky. There’s too much sky out here, for one thing, too much horizontal, too many lines without stops, so that the exclamation, the perpendicular, had to come. . . . On a good day, with a slanting sun, a man can walk to the edge of his town and see the light on the next town, ten miles away. In the sea of corn, that flash of light is like a sail. It reminds a man the place is still inhabited.

 As someone who also interweaves words and photographs in my books, I’ve learned from Morris’s photo-texts that looking closely at a landscape—especially one where you’ve lived or spent considerable time—is akin to a kind of listening. If you look deeply enough—especially in a place rich in memory and poetic associations—you may very well begin to hear what you see. This became evident to me while working on my third book, My Dakota. South Dakota, where I came of age, is, like its southern neighbor Nebraska, a sparsely populated state of disappearing family farms and struggling small towns, a place dominated by space and silence and solitude, by brutal wind and extreme weather. In 2006, after my brother died unexpectedly of heart failure, it felt like all I could do was drive through the prairies and badlands of South Dakota and photograph. And I began to wonder: Does loss have its own geography?

Look closely enough and you can almost hear the low hum of loss in many of Morris’s unpeopled photographs, which seem uncannily filled with the presence of others, reflecting the sensibility of someone well acquainted with absence. And from time to time, Morris’s words address his deepest loss, which lies beneath much of his work—the death of his mother Grace, a farmer’s daughter, six days after his birth—including this passage from God’s Country and My People:

I have not forgotten. She sees the new world through my eyes. . . . The landscape lies within me and proves to be a fiction that resists erosion.

Perhaps Morris’s words “enhance and enlarge” his photographs by evoking a different kind of landscape. Ultimately, could it be that Morris’s writing—the second of his “two distinct views”—creates a kind of private and interior Nebraska, one that suggests what all that emptiness feels like to those of us who grew up on the Great Plains, a place that was also growing up in us?—Rebecca Norris Webb, from Pier 24’s Photographers Looking at Photographs: 75 Pictures from the Pilara Foundation, edited by Allie Haeusslein, published by Pier 24, 2019.

For more about the new book, including how to order it online, please follow this link.


New Book: Photographers Looking at Photographs

January 29, 2020

Photographers Looking at Photographs, Pier 24, 2019


Alex and I are honored to be part of this wonderful new book, Photographers Looking at Photographs, edited by Pier 24’s Allie Haeusslein, a kind of creative conversation with John Szarkowski’s famous book, Looking at Photographs, in which the noted MOMA curator wrote about 100 photographs from the museum’s collection. We were among 75 photographers chosen—including Mark Steinmetz, Mimi Plumb, Jim Goldberg, Deborah Luster, Alec Soth, Catherine Opie, Hank Willis Thomas, Linda Connor, Robert Polidori, and An-My Le—to write about photographs from the Pilara Foundation collection. Alex and I wrote about two of our photographic inspirations—Josef Koudelka for Alex, Wright Morris for me.—Rebecca Norris Webb

To learn more about this book—including details about how to order it online—please follow this link.

On Storms, Fathers and Daughters

January 7, 2020

©Rebecca Norris Webb, Unafraid of Storms, 2019, Rush County, Indiana, from the work-in-progress, Night Calls.

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”—Louisa May Alcott, from the book, Little Women.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about fathers and daughters, while working on the book dummy for Night Calls—about my kind and supportive 99-year-old country doctor father—a photo-text book in which all the text pieces are addressed to him, in the spirit of an extended conversation or series of epistolary prose poems. Recently I saw Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. In that darkened Cape Cod movie theater, I was transported back to my childhood, remembering the feel of my older sister’s worn, hand-me-down copy—with its olive cover and drawing of the four March sisters. I was eight, around the time Dad quietly took me aside and said, “Becky, you can be anything you want to be.” Jo March was the first woman writer I’d ever come across, and a window of possibility opened. After watching Gerwig’s Little Women, I reread the New York Times obituary of Louisa May Alcott, who died in 1888. Growing up in Concord, Massachusetts., Alcott, besides being an Abolitionist and early feminist, was one of the few women Transcendentalists, an idealistic philosophical and social movement that counted Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, among its ranks.

The lives of Amos Bronson and Louisa May were deeply intertwined—sometimes bewilderingly so. She was born on her father’s birthday, November 29, and, sadly, died of a stroke within 40 hours of his death. A more complicated picture of their relationship comes into focus in the twinned biography, Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson, which in 2008 won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. (Matteson said his own daughter’s fascination with the Alcotts inspired him to write the book.) The Alcott father-daughter relationship was loving, but far from easy. Her father was an idealist and a dreamer, time and again sending the family into financial ruin (they moved some 25 times in Louisa’s childhood, often just steps ahead of the creditors). Louisa—with her seemingly tireless work ethic and creative drive (she taught herself to write ambidextrously, so she could write continuously for hours)—was by far the more productive and pragmatic of the pair, eventually supporting the family for years by having the business savvy to retain the copyright of Little Women, a perennial best seller. Ultimately, they both became 19th century luminaries. But would Louisa have become the writer she was without the freedom to roam the library of Emerson—a close friend of her father’s—or without the burden of poverty to overcome? Could it be that sometimes inspiration is as complicated as love?

In my relationship with my father, he’s long been the pragmatic one (he told me he’d once dreamed of being a poet or an explorer, that is, before he turned 17, and his father died of lung cancer). Is my father’s groundedness partly why I could become the daydreamer and bookmaker that I am today? That said, I know I’m very much my father’s daughter in at least two ways. First, we share a deep love of landscape—first the rolling countryside of rural Indiana, then the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. Like him, I also have a passion for looking closely, both at the natural world as well as its inhabitants, but looking at both from a compassionate distance. For in our darkest times, doesn’t someone among us have to feel for a pulse? Doesn’t someone among us have to feel for the words?—Rebecca Norris Webb, January 2020.