My Dakota

Photographs by Rebecca Norris Webb
Radius Books, 2012

Reviewed by Ellen Wallenstein

Issue 41

My Dakota (subtitle: “an elegy for my brother“) by Rebecca Norris Webb is a Class Act. After the unexpected death of her brother, the photographer went back to revisit her home in South Dakota, searching for solace and a way to come to terms with his death.

This book of words and images is beautifully sad, sadly beautiful, utterly brilliant and miraculous. Webb’s poem follows underneath the smartly sequenced photographs, written in a delicate hand on the snow-white pages that surround them. The layout of the images (mostly one, recto, on a double-page spread, with a few pairings) sets up a rhythm that works in counterpoint to the poem. The words and images work together to weave a deeper reading.

Looking for glimpses of the dead is not a new kind of quest in photography - we’ve been trying to make “spirit photographs” since the medium began. How Webb succeeds is through metaphor and symbol, which reveal themselves slowly as the pages turn. Her great loss is hidden in complex images that take several viewings to understand. They convey not just three but four dimensions.

On this journey through re-membered territory, the photographs illustrate the psychological and spiritual realities of the place. The barren land that is the Dakotas appears first, starting with the dust jacket image, a view of the Badlands through the greenish tint of a partially opened car window. Some patches of grass stubbornly cling to the sandy foreground, leading us to the striped mountains miles beyond. The frontispiece is of a buffalo glimpsed through a sideview mirror, seen as if on the other side of time. The Wild West, indeed.

She writes:

“I find, nestled in the ache, the surprise of grief’s expansiveness-- The prairie unfolding in me.”

There are primal qualities to the exploration of these landscapes. Webb searches for clues to her brother’s whereabouts in the mountains, the fields, and the forests; in abandoned farmhouses and the family home; and on the road. In the details (where God is, perhaps?) lie the metaphors - lengths of plastic entangled on barbed wire, a lawnchair becoming undergrowth. The spine of an animal caught on a fence like some prehistoric sculpture. Two upturned chairs in a rushing river, handprints on windows and on the side of a bridge. These photographs are mysterious, mournful and magical.

The sky participates also, in unaccountable ways - sky below a tent that obscures our view; sky over mountains repeated in a sideview mirror; skies flattened and reflected back onto windows and bodies of water. Looking for glimpses of heaven, a blue dress in a zippered plastic bag refers us there too.

Animals are prominent. The creatures are both themselves and symbols for the departed. “All year, deer haunt the lawns of the newly dead,” says her poem, and we see them twice in these pictures, once as a tiny figure outside a curtained window, and again as a pair in winter, caught in the blur between worlds.

The few human figures in the photos are tiny and unreal, seen from behind, or reflected. A young man weeping, glimpsed in the window of a shiny black door in a wood-lined room. A boy’s figure caught in two intersecting reflections. A cowboy, in the background of a rodeo ring is less engaging than the buffalo, which eyes us through a metal gate.

The most repeated symbol is the apple. (....“In our garden once an orchard”....) Three green apples on a plastic plate, groups of apples scattered on the ground. The last page shows us apples by a roadside, forever fallen and ripe. A remembered Eden.

I love this book. I envy this book. This book makes me weep. In forty-six images and one exquisite poem, the artist Rebecca Norris Webb has given us a Psalm.

Buy the book here

Ellen Wallenstein is a New York City based photographer and photography professor.
To view more of Ellen's writing and photography, please visit her website and blog