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In 2005, photographer Rebecca Norris Webb decided it was time to head West with her camera. She’d lived in New York City for 15 years, and spent six years working in the cramped interiors of zoos and aquariums for The Glass Between Us, her first book about the complicated relationship between people and animals in cities. She longed for her home state of South Dakota, its big vistas and blue skies, roaming bison and pronghorn. But a year into the project, one of Norris Webb’s older brothers died unexpectedly of heart failure. In her grief, the familiar landscape became a sort of frontier, she says, and “one of the few things that eased my unsettled heart.” Over seven years, in several different excursions, she wandered and photographed her way through the state’s badlands, prairies and rural communities. “I began to wonder,” she writes in her artist’s statement, “Does loss have its own geography?”
Norris Webb’s 2012 book, My Dakota, which collects 46 of the resulting images along with brief musings in her own airy longhand, is a compelling hybrid of elegy and celebration of place, of a landscape’s capacity to provide solace. High Country News caught up with Norris Webb in early February, just as she was preparing to head back to the High Plains on another photo excursion.
High Country News: You started out as a poet. What was the focus of your work at the time?
Rebecca Norris Webb: In the late 1970s, I started writing poetry while attending the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, in what South Dakotans call “East River,” which is the half of the state east of the Missouri River. This predominantly flat farmland is a different world from “West River,” where I grew up, with its drier, more varied landscape punctuated by the Black Hills and badlands, and home to sheep and cattle ranching, mining and tourism. West River has long had a Wild West reputation, and as late as 1979 there was still a notorious working brothel in Deadwood — Pam’s Purple Door — where at least one young man I knew lost his virginity in high school.
In part, I think my poetry arose as a response of trying to deal with this new “East River” landscape, with its prairie and Missouri River valley, its epic blizzards and fierce winds.
HCN: Why the switch to photography?
Norris Webb: After college, my poetry deserted me. It didn’t contain enough of the wider world and my curiosity about it. My response to writer’s block was to buy a small camera and travel for a year, hoping the photographs would spark my poetry when I returned. Instead, I fell in love with photography. I realized the eye that saw the images in my poetry was the same eye looking through the lens. Nebraska photographer and writer Wright Morris — who also combined writing and photographs in his books — said it best: “I don’t give up the camera eye when I write, merely the camera.”
HCN: Lots of folks dismiss South Dakota as flyover country. Why does its landscape hold such a draw for you? And why is it important to share that with others?
Norris Webb: I’m thankful many people think of South Dakota as a flyover state!
Last year, when I drove north from Denver to the Black Hills, I was startled by how congested the I-25 corridor had become in just the past few years. It was a relief to hit the Wyoming landscape, with its rich, familiar emptiness.
It’s hard to explain, but I don’t feel like myself unless I’m in the badlands, prairies, Black Hills or Missouri River valley of my home state. Ultimately, My Dakota is about how South Dakota’s landscape gave me solace while grieving, something I think other Westerners identify with no matter which particular landscape they consider home.
HCN: Many of the images in the My Dakota series contain an interesting combination of intimate space and vast distance – looking through tightly spaced golden leaves at an azure sky; through a rain-spattered car window at a rolling prairie; through a reflection on a wall map at a young boy on the street. Is the juxtaposition significant?
Norris Webb: It’s taken me much of life to understand and accept that some of these seemingly paradoxical images — like the ones you describe — are wiser than I am. It often takes me weeks and sometimes months to understand what they are trying to say to me.
For instance, My Dakota abounds with wave images — from those blue, wavelike streaks of broken swallows’ nests to the waves of ice where a dead pronghorn lay in a roadside ditch. The inland sea that covered much of the state millions of years ago has sparked my imagination ever since a rancher handed me the fossil of a sea creature he found on his land. After my brother died, however, I kept running across images that evoke oceans or waves, from undulating seas of prairie grass to accounts of pioneers suffering a form of seasickness when crossing those seemingly endless spaces. Slowly I began to see that behind this image of the inland sea that permeates the project was my grief for my brother, which continues to come in waves, even years after he died.
HCN: Will you tell us a little about him and what he meant to you?
Norris Webb: At my brother Dave’s funeral, I met people who’d known him at different stages of his life — as a paperboy, a high school wrestler, a college student, a railroad worker, a father, a lawyer. Each one of them told me the same thing: “He was my best friend.” What better compliment can be paid to a man than that?
As his younger sister, I’ve long looked up to Dave — and his identical twin, Mike. Their humor, humility and humanity taught me — their shy, bookworm sister — not only how to live in the world, but how to embrace it.
HCN: Did he also have a special relationship with this place?
Norris Webb: As a young man, Dave loved cars — he had a collection of old Studebakers — and enjoyed his many South Dakota road trips. Before he married and went to law school, he worked in the Black Hills for the railroad and on the Pine Ridge Reservation, aiding a lawyer friend.
HCN: The process of photographing the series was a road trip in its own right, correct?
Norris Webb: My initial response to my brother’s death was an overwhelming restlessness. For months, all I wanted to do is drive and drive. I don’t even like to drive, and I was always getting lost.
No one gives you a road map for how to grieve. It’s a dark time and one has to make one’s way as best one can. It was heartening to encounter two South Dakota widows who’d also experienced the same restless need to drive in the throes of grief— and had also gotten lost repeatedly, even in familiar terrain. “Maybe the grieving should be prohibited from driving and wear a large red A on their chests — like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter,” said Hermosa, S.D., writer and rancher Linda Hasselstrom with a wry smile. “Or perhaps a red , Triple A!” replied musician and Loneman art teacher Gail Saxonis with a laugh, in her classroom on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Sometimes others who’ve successfully navigated their own grief can point you in the right direction. My good friend, science writer Elizabeth Devita-Raeburn, gave me invaluable guidance the day Dave died: “Becky, you have to figure out how to carry your brother in your heart always.” Elizabeth, whose only brother, Ted, died when she was 14, wrote The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age. Ted was the original “boy in the bubble,” her only sibling and her best friend.
HCN: You’ve traveled to some exotic places for your work, including Cuba. Did it feel different to train your lens on something so familiar, your home state?
Norris Webb: As strange as this might sound, Cuba in one striking way reminds me of South Dakota. Violet Isle — the joint Cuba book I made with my husband and creative partner, photographer Alex Webb, over a span of 15 years — was created in part because I’d discovered that many Cubans have menageries of animals, even though they are incredibly poor, and it’s a challenge to feed them. These Cuban menageries reminded me of all those South Dakota ranch and farm families I’ve met who have collections of animals.
HCN: Will you continue to work on projects on the Great Plains?
Norris Webb: For much of February, I’ll be in South Dakota working on another project in the badlands, a landscape that still draws me West. I’m not exactly sure why I’m returning, especially during the coldest time of the year. Maybe not knowing why is a good place to start.
For the past 15 years, poet-turned-photographer Rebecca Norris Webb has been exploring the relationship between people and the natural world. Her third book, My Dakota, which interweaves 46 of her photographs with spare text pieces, was released by Radius Books last June. A traveling exhibit of this work will run June 4-Aug. 6 at the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, N.D. Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City will also show the work from June 20-Aug. 17.