Slant Rhymes, a new collaborative book by the photographers Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, traces the winding paths of both artists and the sudden convergences of their work over a 30-year period, from the beginning of their friendship through their marriage and into the present. Rather than lay their work out chronologically, the book pairs images by each artist on adjoining pages that, as the title suggests, are based on unexpected visual connections. The result creates what amounts to a “long, elliptical, unfinished love poem,” as Alex Webb writes toward the beginning of the book. The different “slant rhymes” — a term derived from poetry — are sometimes oblique and other times more direct, and are often not just visual. One of the great pleasures of reading this book is the way the images interact with the textual elements, which take the form of short ruminations and memories. “To focus, you often close your eyes while speaking,” Rebeccea Norris Webb writes. “Looking through the lens, I dream with one eye open.”
In an e-mail conversation conducted over several days, the two photographers talked about their collaborative relationship, what inspires their work, and the ways different cities they have photographed live inside them.
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Craig Hubert: How would each of you describe the other’s work? And how do you think the other’s work has influenced your own?
Rebecca Norris Webb: I’d describe Alex as a street photographer whose color work is so resonant and atmospheric and, at times, astonishing. It’s as if, gazing deeply into one of his most iconic, layered images, say “Tehuantepec, Mexico” — whose young man looks as if he’s balancing the blue, ever-turning world on the tip of his finger — one seems somehow to have slipped into one of Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realist novels, a source of inspiration for Alex’s Latin America work.
And how has his work influenced mine? When we got together as a couple in the mid-1990s, I was just finding my own visual vocabulary. I remember consciously distancing myself from his signature style, something that happened pretty organically, since I tend to be naturally drawn to quieter images and a softer color palette. These days, now that I’ve found my particular way of seeing, thanks in large part to the making of my third book, My Dakota — an elegiac work that interweaves my photographs and spare text pieces — I’m more comfortable allowing some of Alex’s influence to shine through my work. Or, perhaps I should say to darken my work. Lately, looking at my recent Night Calls images, I see some of those deep, soulful shadows he’s long been known for. I guess one could even call it influence as love letter.
Alex Webb: Rebecca’s work is subtle and deeply poetic. Still and meditative, her landscapes feel spontaneous and immediate and intimate, not studied or monumental. They are the landscapes of someone who has lived in and absorbed those places she photographs. She has a surprising ability to discover the metaphors that permeate her work.
After I completed my Istanbul book, which is filled with photographs of reflections, I wondered if I had been influenced by Rebecca’s use of reflections in her first book, The Glass Between Us. In retrospect, I think I was. But, ultimately, I suspect Rebecca’s influence on me and my work has been more profound than that.
Being with Rebecca has opened me to a greater range of emotional possibilities. While my work at times still has that dark, hard-edged feel that evolved in the late ‘70s with my color work from the tropics, I think it now often strikes other, more emotionally nuanced notes as well. I refer to this in the introduction to Slant Rhymes when I discuss the first photograph in the book, “Nuevo Laredo, Mexico,” that I took in 1996, not long after we’d started dating. It took me a while to realize why this more lyrical image stood apart from my edgier border work — it was because I’d fallen for the woman who would later become my wife.
CH: Can you talk about the process of compiling the images and text for this book? How was it different from the way each of you would put together your own separate projects?
RNW: Well, if you were to visit our studio here on Cape Cod, where we’re currently editing and sequencing three works in progress — one of Alex’s, one of mine, and one collaborative project — you’d see something very similar: a sequence of small prints taped to the wall.
AW: The difference is that with our individual projects, the author comes up with the selection and sequence, and then works on the nuances with the other person. With a collaborative project, we work simultaneously on it, which is both more difficult and taxing, but also more exciting and surprising. And whatever disagreements we may have are usually resolved by time. The longer those little prints stay up on the wall, the greater the likelihood that we’ll come to an agreement on the sequence.
CH: Rebecca, how does your background in poetry inform your photographic work? Do writing and photography come from the same impulse?
RNW: I see in images, regardless if I have a camera or pencil in my hands. I think the writer and photographer Wright Morris said it best: “I don’t give up the camera eye when I write, merely the camera.”
CH: Does photography offer something that poetry cannot?
RNW: During times of extreme stress or emotional upheaval, photography pulls me out into the world when poetry isn’t able to. For instance, in my darkest grief for my brother — my first loss of an immediate family member — I couldn’t write, but, thankfully, I somehow managed to photograph. It was as if the prairies and badlands of South Dakota spoke to something deep inside me, beyond the territory of words. Looking back at “Blackbirds” and some of the other My Dakota photographs taken during that devastating — but also surprisingly expansive — time, I think that I may do some of my strongest work when I’m uncomfortable emotionally.
Staying at friend’s ranch near the Badlands at the end of the project, my writing returned, but in a different form than I’d ever written before — spare text pieces focusing on the same images that I’d been repeatedly photographing in the South Dakota landscape: deer, apples, prairies, wave patterns. It was as if my photographs had been slowly showing me how to write about loss.
CH: Alex, is there non-photographic work that informs your photography? There is a density to some of your images that reminds me of the assemblages of Joseph Cornell, for example.
AW: I come from a family of artists: my mother was a draftsman, painter, and sculptor; my father was an editor, publisher, secretive novelist, and occasional photographer; my brother is a painter; and my sister is an ornithological illustrator. As a child, I was taken to art museums extensively. I remember early on being particularly drawn to de Chirico’s surrealist vision, as well as to the work of Braque and Matisse. In college I majored in literature — I even had illusions of writing fiction — and many of my early trips as a photographer were partially inspired by literature, including Graham Greene’s The Comedians for Haiti and Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude for Mexico. And the music that most consistently inspires me is the blues.
CH: Alex, your images tend to focus more on people, with an attention to the body and movement. I’m curious about what you’re looking for when you begin a “slow, ambling walk” through a city, as you describe, and how you open yourself up to the surprising character of the streets.
AW: I’m not sure I’m so much looking for something, as wandering, uncertain as to what I may find, but trying to remain open to whatever may emerge or occur in the streets. I “smell” the possibility of a photograph. Maybe it’s just a shaft of light — or a couple of people hanging out on a corner — but I sense a possibility. Sometimes the situation develops into something intriguing, more often it doesn’t.
CH: Rebecca, many of your images display an attraction to animals and fondness for open space — an absence, possibly, whereas Alex’s images display a presence. What brings you back to these kinds of images?
RNW: When the natural world calls to me, I respond with a camera. I rarely understand why, at least initially. It often involves listening to a landscape, as much as looking attentively. Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace working this way: photographing deeply and intuitively in a landscape imbued with poetic associations and memories, which is often a place where I’ve lived, and, in the case of Night Calls, where five generations of my Quaker family had walked and worked and loved before me. So I guess you could say I’m drawn to the presence in absence. For wasn’t it Barthes who said that every photograph is a kind of memorial?
H: Rebecca, you write in Slant Rhymes about the way certain cities “slip off the map of our imagination,” while others — Havana, Istanbul, Brooklyn — live inside you. Is there a commonality between those places that keep them inside both of you?
AW: It’s hard to say just why a given place at a given time captures one’s imagination, and induces one to return again and again to photograph there over many years. In Havana, for instance, I found myself entranced by the sense of waiting in the streets of Cuba, almost a metaphysical sense that seemed to go beyond the obvious — beyond political notions of the end of the US embargo or the death of Castro. Rebecca discovered in Havana — and indeed throughout the island of Cuba — quirky collections of animals, in menageries both public and private. In our joint book and exhibition, Violet Isle, her photographs of birds — the most popular animal in Cuban menageries — became a kind of metaphor for Cubans’ longing for flight on an island where few people are allowed to travel.
Brooklyn is a little different, since it’s where we’ve lived for some 20 years. Over the past few years, we’ve been working on a joint project called The City Within, because Brooklyn, which was once its own city, lies now within the vast confines of New York City. I’m photographing all over Brooklyn, in particular exploring its tremendous cultural diversity — it’s said that one in every eight U.S. families had relatives that came through Brooklyn. So I’m photographing Mexican Brooklyn, Caribbean Brooklyn, Chinese Brooklyn, and so forth.
RNW: And I’m photographing “the city within the city within the city” — the green heart of Brooklyn, Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and Green-Wood Cemetery. Alex and I will be leaving our Park Slope neighborhood sometime in the next few years, so the project has also become a kind of farewell to Brooklyn.
So, perhaps it’s in the process of making a book, when a city we’ve spent considerable time photographing in — Istanbul, Havana, or Brooklyn — begins to inhabit us.
Slant Rhymes by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb is out now from La Fábrica.