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In much the same way that an enduring marriage is greater than the sum of its parts, so is great photography. For both, part of the magic is in their alluring mysteriousness. Alex and Rebecca Norris Webb – united for 20 years now – have joined their considerable pictorial and literary gifts to produce two resonant photographic pairings: “Memory City” at Robert Klein Gallery (RKG) on Newbury Street and “Slant Rhymes” at RKG satellite Ars Libri, in Boston’s South End, both on view through October 31, 2014.
“Memory City” is an homage to Rochester, New York, photographed in the year following Eastman Kodak’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2012. The tensions of a city undergoing radical change are reflected visually by the hardnosed, incisive street photography for which Magnum photographer Alex is known, in lively conversation with Rebecca’s nuanced and ethereal imagery of Rochester’s feminine domain. Alex’s vibrant photographs of public spaces like dance halls, diners and street corners, often captured on supposedly celebratory holidays like the 4th of July, have a paradoxically empty feeling. That all his color prints were shot digitally only underscores the irony of Kodak’s demise. Adding to the symbolism, Alex shot some pictures using Kodachrome (the color slide film he used for decades) that now can only be processed as black and white, giving the film a weathered look, as well as draining it of color.
In contrast, Rebecca shoots all her work with color film. Originally a poet, she recounts that Kodak film, that “fragile slip of celluloid, brought to mind women’s special-occasion dresses, worn only once to a memorable event”. Her still-lifes and portraits are replete with the metaphors of Kodak’s signature product, memories: windows, mirrors, homes and special occasions. Many of her images feature reflections, a graphic overlaying of the present with vestiges from the past. Her palette, awash in faded pastels, is emotively nostalgic. The women she pictures seem to be contemplating their futures, an affecting gesture which delivers a soft rejoinder to Alex’s more despondent scenarios. “Memory City” seems as much a meditation on photographic film (in what may be its precarious last days), as it is the story of an unanchored city careening toward its uncertain future. This is an altogether too common American drama, woven into a subtly elegant portrait through the Webbs’ creative collaboration.
The Webbs’ second exhibit, “Slant Rhymes”, is an intentional, lyrical riff on the conversation between their contrapuntal visual styles. The aptly poetic title refers to a rhyme that echoes, but does not match. Eight pairs of images are each joined along one side of their frames to facilitate close comparisons. This is a joyful exercise, akin to solving a puzzle, that captivates and satisfies as revelations continue to dawn.
Unlike their “Memory City” project, the images in “Slant Rhymes” span unrelated times and places. One duo consists of a 2008 picture from Cuba paired with a 1980 image from Uganda. Whether drawing attention to compositional elements, color palette, emotional tone or deep hidden meanings, the Webbs’ sets of images are addictively engaging. The entire exhibit has an upbeat feel and easy flow, although it’s inviting to stand before any one of them and just fall in. If we’re lucky, the Webbs will continue in this intriguing, often playful, endeavor and create a book from it.
As Rebecca recalled, “A few years ago, Pico Iyer wrote in the afterword to our first joint book, “Violet Isle,” (about Cuba) that our work sometimes rhymes. Alex and I love that notion. At times, I can pinpoint these subtle echoes or slant rhymes—such as a shared palette or an affinity for surreal or surprising moments. Other times, why two of our photographs work together remains somewhat mysterious.”
Just like a great marriage.
For information about the Webbs’ dual Boston exhibits or to purchase their new book, “Memory City” (Radius Books, 2014, available through RKG), go to: http://www.robertkleingallery.com/
Feature image: Crop from “Lilac Festival Scrim, Main Street, Rochester, NY, 2013” by Rebecca Norris Webb, from the series Memory City (courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston)