Book Review: Night Calls by Rebecca Norris Webb
Night Calls, Rebecca Norris Webb’s third full-length monograph, is a bit more complex than a simple collection of photography. The book is photography, family history, and Webb’s own personal story all wrapped up into one. In essence, it is her journey back to her home, Rush County, Indiana, to reunite with both the people and the place. There is also a special emphasis placed on connecting with her father, a ninety-nine-year-old country doctor. It seems most people, eventually, reach a time in their lives when they long for home – to reconnect with their roots. Webb obviously reached this moment in her life and this new book is the product of that journey.
The photography in Night Calls is subtle to the point of being sublime. As the title suggests, many of the photographs in the collection were made at night. Night photography is not all that difficult to do, so long as all you want is a readable image. Much of the night photography I see out in the world does not reproduce the scene as the human eye would perceive it. There’s a good reason for this – doing so is darn difficult. Webb has mastered this skill, however. Her night shots are made in a way that reproduces the light as it would have been seen. The slight variances in natural light are captured perfectly time and again. I can imagine myself there, in Rush, Indiana, in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, standing in these scenes. Not in every photograph, but in many, I see this reproduction of light and color to the point of rivaling William Eggleston. A few of the other images, usually the ones involving people, are more ordinary – the tones and exposures are underwhelming (possibly as a result of commercial printing). Yet, the collection as a whole is a great body of work.
The book contains a lot of text. In a lot of photography books, I am not a fan of this element. I believe that photography – art in general – requires little explanation. For better or worse, there the photograph is. Yet, in this book, I was slowly drawn in by the words – by Webb’s own voice narrating our journey through the images. The text adds rather than explains. In places, Webb’s words are poetic and distant, in others, they are a more direct tribute to her father and his life’s work as the community doctor. With both words and images, Webb has an uncanny ability to draw in the reader/viewer so that we too almost feel nostalgia for this place we’ve never been. No small feat.
The book as a physical object is a curious wonder. Some of the interior pages (with text) are smaller than the other pages, giving the “flipping” effect some added interest. There is an insert at the back, a kind of journal, which contains notes on the photographs. It is tucked into a little pocket. The idea is a good one, but the notebook’s cover is regular paper and the little pocket is narrow – the result of which is that the notebook easily flops out of the book. I would like to have seen the notebook covers made of cardstock and housed in a deeper pocket. The book as a whole is held together by a beautiful deep blue fabric-covered hardback binding. At $50 US, the book is well enough made. Though, it should be noted that it is more akin to a commercial book than a museum-quality art monograph. The interior printing is good quality and the paper is a nice matte finish. The photographs, for the most part, are reproduced very well.
Night Calls is a highly personal project. As a result, it is hard to provide a comprehensive and frank critique from inspecting the book alone. I must take Webb’s story, her vision, her purpose – the book’s raison d’être – into full account. When I do, it is clear to me that this is a highly worthwhile project that was executed very, very well. A reader needs to sit with the book, read it, fully, and then digest the project to understand its true value. Unfortunately, this is not a book where a “quick flip” of the pages is likely to inspire a purchase. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. One thing is for certain – Rebecca Norris Webb can capture the essence of a place and its people with exquisite craft. Night Calls is dedicated to Webb’s parents and, as a love letter to one’s parents, it is an example for the ages.
Photography and text by Rebecca Norris Webb
Hardcover / 8.5 x 9.75 inches
128 Pages / 61 Images
Published by Radius Books