Posts Tagged ‘Text and Image’

TEXT AND IMAGE: World Poetry Day

March 21, 2011

To celebrate WORLD POETRY DAY, we’ve decided to post one of Rebecca’s prose poems from her first book, “The Glass Between Us,” both in English and in Chinese, the latter thanks to the wonderful translation by fellow photographer and translator, Monica Lin, who is based in Hong Kong.  We are dedicating the poem to all the Chinese photographers we’ve met — both in the Hong Kong workshop, at our Hong Kong slide talk, and through the TWO LOOKS online photographic community.  In addition, since the poem takes place in the Caribbean, we decided to pair it with a relatively unknown photograph of Alex’s from Puerto Rico, which will appear in his new book, “The Suffering of Light.”–=Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

Alex Webb, Pinones, Puerto Rico, 1990, from the book "The Suffering of Light"

Reflections: 4

Sailing in the Caribbean, I catch a mahi mahi.  It takes two men to lift its four-foot body from the sea.  On the hot teak deck, I watch the creature shift its tint, from teal to indigo to aquamarine, like having a tiny sea, beautiful and raging, at my bare feet.  As it flips and flops, I feel a little afraid of this great hulking dying thing.  I wish it would fly.  I wish it would be still.  I’m ashamed how hungry it makes me feel.

Within minutes, I slip a piece of deep red sushi between my lips.  The   freshest fish I’ve ever tasted, it is heavy and sweet and otherworldly, like a slice of mango or sex in the sun after swimming in the turquoise Caribbean.  What I hope my own death will taste like.—Rebecca Norris Webb, from the book, “The Glass Between Us”



几分钟后,一块深红色的生鱼片滑进我的双唇。这是我尝过最新鲜的鱼肉了,它厚实、鲜甜、超凡脱俗,如同一片芒果,又像在宝石般的加勒比海水中暢泳之后開始的性爱。真希望自己的死亡也有同樣的味道—Rebecca Norris Webb, translated into Chinese by Monica Lin, from the book, “The Glass Between Us”

OUTSIDE THE FRAME: Alex and Rebecca

April 19, 2010

For the new issue of VISURA, an online magazine of photography and writing featuring established and emerging photographers, we decided to try something we’ve never attempted before: In the spirit of a duet, we have paired photographs from our joint book, VIOLET ISLE, with stories we wrote about what lies “outside the frame.” On the VISURA site, there’s also a slide show of some 20 images from Cuba, some of which have never appeared online.

So, for our first OUTSIDE THE FRAME column, we decided to extend this notion of a duet of text and images by adding two audio files to this blog posting  (click on the arrows below the first two photographs to hear some of the text pieces featured in the 9th issue of VISURA).  Lastly, Rebecca has also included a second photograph from Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, heretofore unpublished online, a portrait of the man she met and talks about in her audio piece.—Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

Alex Webb, "Cienfuegos, Cuba, 2007" from the book, "Violet Isle"

Rebecca Norris Webb, "Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, 2008" from the book, "Violet Isle"

Rebecca Norris Webb, "Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, 2008," from "Violet Isle"

TWO QUESTIONS: On Framing and Philosophy; On Multimedia and Text/Image Synergy

February 17, 2010

This month, we have TWO QUESTIONS from Japanese photographer and editor, HIROSHI YAMAUCHI, his first question about how Alex frames his photographs and his second one about how Rebecca thinks about the marriage of text and images in photography books. Next, our second featured photographer, OLGA KRAVETS from Russia, asks Rebecca about which comes first in her photographic process –– the idea or the image –– and then questions Alex about how he feels about the  expansion of photography into the world of multimedia, and the challenges that places on photographers today. You can learn more about Hiroshi and Olga at the end of this column, which also includes links to their work.––Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb


Alex Webb, Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1990

HIROSHI YAMAUCHI:  Alex, when you come across a situation and “smell” the possibility of a good photo, do you run an anatomy of the scene first to divide spaces in your finder for what could happen?  It’s almost as if you precisely choreograph the elements in each of your frames.

ALEX WEBB: Saying “run an anatomy of the scene” makes the process sound highly analytical.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  My process is not about thought, not about analysis, but rather about feeling the totality of a scene and responding intuitively, emotionally, non-rationally.  I have sometimes used the word “smell” in this context (and I think I am paraphrasing Cartier-Bresson) specifically because smell is sensory, not rational.    The process can be a bit mysterious.  When I photograph, I sense the possibility of something — something about the feel of a place, the situation, some impending moment, the light, the color, the space, the shapes — and I often hang out and wait, hoping that something will happen, something will emerge.  But I’m never sure quite what this something is.  For me, the elements that go into the picture are often emotional elements: not just what is in fact “happening” in a situation (the purported “subject” of the image), but the space, the color, the light.  Form isn’t just form, it can be emotion.  Color isn’t just color for color’s sake, it, too, carries emotion.  Sometimes a shape in the foreground becomes some kind of transformative element, sometimes an empty space strikes a special emotional note, sometimes the color changes what wasn’t an evocative scene into something very different… Ultimately I never know what it is that I am going to find, and just how the world will surprise me.

HY: Rebecca, do you design your creative writing to play certain roles in your visual presentation as a whole?  Do you feel a good marriage of writing and photography can generate synergy, like a good meal with good wine?

REBECCA NORRIS WEBB: Originally a poet, I’ve long been interested in the relationship between text and images, and how the two can illuminate each other.  For me, it’s one of my chief obsessions, something I hope to explore with each of my photography books.  In some ways, when the relationship between text and images works well, it is like a good marriage or a good meal, where the different elements complement each other, sometimes creating a kind of synergy that’s stronger than the separate elements individually.  Ultimately, it’s about striking the right balance, so that one form doesn’t overpower the other.  That said, I don’t think all books call for a lot of text –– some books just need enough to point the reader/viewer in the right direction.  In my opinion, part of power of the photography book –– and one way it is like poetry –- is its ability to suggest complex themes and ideas, yet leave enough space for the viewer/reader to have his or her own unique experience of the work.

Since we are talking here about the photography book, I think the visual element has to be considered when thinking about the text.  For my first book, The Glass Between Us, my designer, Astrid Lewis Reedy, and I decided to place the text pieces, which I called “Reflections,” either across from a blank page or opposite another text piece, as way of creating a kind of pause visually for the reader/viewer, hopefully as a way of echoing the kind of reflective state of mind one feels when looking at the creatures in a aquarium or zoo — philosophically or psychologically or emotionally or humorously or, sometimes, all of the above.  After visiting a zoo, the poet Charles Simic once wrote, “…I noticed many animals who had a fleeting resemblance to me.”


Rebecca Norris Webb, Hot Springs, South Dakota, 2009

OLGA KRAVETS: Rebecca, your projects seem to me very philosophical: There is much that your pictures make me think of, after I go through them. When you develop the idea of a photo project, do you know in advance what your pictures would look like, what and where you would shoot, etc.? Will an unexpected picture find its place in the final layout of a book?

RNW: My work is first and foremost a collaboration with the world.  I’ve learned over the years to have faith in those images that speak most insistently to me, first when I encounter them in the world when photographing, and, secondly, when I come across some of them again when editing, those rare birds that continue to resonate in me in a rich and complicated way –– emotionally, philosophically, poetically, politically –– with something akin to a kind of hum:  the hum of life and death, the hum of beauty and suffering, the hum of praise and lamentation, the hum of the world.

So, I guess you could say that I follow these resonant images to the complex idea or ideas underlying the particular book I’m working on, not the other way around.  “The image is an idea, a true idea, an earlier idea than a concept,” says the poet Li-Young Lee, and I agree wholeheartedly with him.  When I work, I try to stay as open as I can throughout the entire process of photographing a project:  I don’t know before I go out to photograph what image I will find, and many of my photographs that end up in one of my books –– at both the beginning and the end of a project –– are unexpected ones.  That’s part of the excitement of working on a long-term photography project: you never know when or where you’ll come across your strongest photographs.  As a fiction writer once said about his creative process:  If I knew how a story would end before I wrote it, what’s the point of writing it?

OG: Alex, you started photography in the pre-digital era, when a photographer was just a photographer, so what do you think of the industry today, when one, willing to become successful, has to be a jack-of-all-trades — shoot not only stills, but also video, write text, record sounds, and, finally, also produce a quality multimedia piece?

AW: You are right that photographers seem to be asked to do more today by the industry than in the past.  However, I should remind you that photographers have rarely been “just photographers.”  The process of making a book of photographs — conceiving, editing, and sequencing (sometimes even designing) — has always demanded all kinds of other skills beyond just being a photographer.  Photographers used to always print their own photographs — sometimes an arduous task, potentially as time-consuming as some of the activities that you describe.  What is different is that now photographers are increasingly being asked sometimes to step outside of the vocabulary of still imagery into other fields — video and sound.  I personally remain deeply involved in the specific language of still images — books and exhibitions — but I think there are some very exciting possibilities in the realm of multimedia.  For the latter to be successful, a vocabulary has to be developed that is significantly different than either still photography or the moving image — so that in looking at the multimedia piece one is not reminded of what it isn’t — still photographs or film/video — but of what it is — a presentation that partakes of both kinds of media but is, in reality, its own unique medium.

Hiroshi Yamauchi, Beijing, 2007

Hiroshi Yamauchi was born in Osaka, Japan in 1974. After studying political science and international relations, he entered the School of Visual Communications at Ohio University.  Hiroshi worked at the Anchorage Daily News and other U.S. newspapers, returning to Japan in 2000 to work for a wire service.  In 2006, he freelanced for domestic and international newspapers and magazines, and in 2007 joined a photography quarterly,  81Lab. Magazine, which he now co-runs.

Hiroshi’s website:

81Lab. Magazine website:

Olga Kravets, Primorsk, Russia, 2009

Olga Kravets, a freelance photographer based in Moscow, has worked for Berlingske Tidende (Denmark), Dagsavisen (Norway), Financial Times Deutschland (Germany), Helsingin Sanomat (Finland), Kristeligt Dagblad (Denmark), Observer (UK), Tank Magazine (UK), The Globe and Mail (Canada), Throw (Netherlands), among others.  In 2009, she was a finalist for The Aftermath Project grant, and top-10 winner of the competition, “Young Photographers of Russia.”  Olga is the author of the photography projects,  “Primorsk. The Sunken Soviet City” and “Heroes of Karabakh.”  Her work has been included in several group exhibitions in Russia and Norway.

Olga’s website:

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.