Waves of Light: An Interview with Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb
As the holidays approach, many of us are returning home or gathering with our families again. Maybe it's friends that gather or maybe it’s solitude that awaits, either way, thoughts are drifting to a different sort of place, one a little further removed from the day-to-day of our lives. It has almost been three years since the first Covid lockdowns began, when our families, friends, and solitude were suddenly sitting in front of us, against the backdrop of a very different world. A lot has changed and very little has changed since then, but it seems like a good time to remind ourselves of what that shift was like, what we've held on to from that time, and what we've forgotten.
Earlier this year, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb released a book called Waves, an intimate collection of words and images created while the couple was largely sequestered on Cape Cod from March 2020 through May 2021. "Far from the vibrant urban worlds where I’ve often photographed," Alex Webb writes, "I followed the subtle movements of time and tide, wind and water. Meanwhile, Rebecca photographed the waves of light as they washed through our house of many windows—and wrote spare text pieces to try to emotionally navigate this unsettling time, when so many we know have been caught in its undertow." In a reflective throwback of sorts to our Sheltering in Place series, Alex and Rebecca talk to us about what it was like making work during that time and how it’s affected their work today.
Alex Nicholson: In those first weeks and months of the pandemic did you find it easy to make photographs? Did you continue to work, or did it take some time?
Alex Webb: Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, Rebecca and I decamped to Cape Cod, where we have a house. About a week after our arrival on the Cape, I began to explore the beaches with a medium-format panoramic camera to see what I would find. But it was several weeks before I started to feel that the photographs from the beaches began to work.
Alex Webb, Lieutenant Island IV, 2021
Did the images you made during the pandemic feel like a new way of seeing, or did it feel like another instance of using the medium to express yourselves in a new setting and context?
AW: Throughout my many years of photographing, my way of working has remained pretty much the same. Of course, there was the switch from black and white to color in the late 1970s, but the heart of my photographic life has always been wandering the streets with a 35mm camera. So, it was a big shift to use the panoramic camera on the landscape, and not be walking the urban streets.
Rebecca Norris Webb: In the past, I’ve photographed in landscapes where I’ve lived or spent considerable time in—such as the badlands and prairies of South Dakota for my book, My Dakota, or the farmland and floodplains of Rush County, for Night Calls. Since we began living part-time in Wellfleet in 2014, I consciously made the decision not to photograph there. I wanted to wait until the Cape Cod landscape had begun to inhabit me.
Instead, I often wrote while on the Cape. In our house on a hill overlooking Wellfleet Harbor, my small writing room has three walls of mostly windows. It’s perfect for me, someone whose writing process involves as much looking as writing.
Late one afternoon that first spring of the pandemic, while Alex was out photographing on Mayo Beach, I remember staring out the window, waiting for the words that did not come. On the glass, a reflection of my reading lamp floated like a beacon. For the first time, I picked up my camera—and joined Alex on the other side of the glass. For months, I followed the ever-shifting Wellfleet light as it washed through our mid-century house of many windows. Eventually, I made my way out into the marshlands and tidal pools nearby, as the Cape Cod landscape started to inhabit me.
I assume you had spent significant time at Cape Cod pre-pandemic. Did you discover anything new about the landscape and your surroundings during that time that you hadn't noticed before?
AW: I spent many of my childhood summers on Cape Cod, and I had even photographed here some during my first years as a photographer. But I’d never tried to capture photographically what I find so special about the Cape: the sense of deep calm that suffuses the place. I’d never looked hard at the beaches and the sea. I’d never spent time exploring how the seaside landscape changes with the tide. I’d never noticed how sometimes in the early morning the water will sit up on the sand, reflecting the light and sky, before—seconds later—disappearing. The pandemic forced me to look hard and deeply at the seascape.
RNW: My father-in-law’s library of thousands of books inhabits our house, where Alex’s parents—his publisher father, Bill Webb, and artist mother, Nancy Webb—formerly lived. Early in the pandemic, I was particularly heartened to find an early Hogarth Press edition of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves, which became my creative window into the project. “I was always going to the bookcase for another sip of the divine specific,” to quote from this lyrical novel, which has long been a favorite of mine.
The structure of this novel inspired the structure of Waves. Flowing round each chapter, Woolf’s interludes describe the sea at various times of the day. So, in essence, Alex’s panoramic photographs echo these interludes and set the tempo for our book—the undulating rhythm of the waves.
Rebecca Norris Webb, Sheets, 2020
Now that we've been living in this Covid world for some time, are there things that you have taken from that period of time and integrated into what you are doing now?
AW: I discovered that—given the right circumstances and motivation—I could take a very different kind of photograph than I usually do. I managed to expand and extend my photographic sensibility into unfamiliar territory. I also discovered the possibilities of the panoramic camera, a camera that is extremely good for a limited number of things and extremely poor for many others.
RNW: In our isolation during those early days of the pandemic, time was measured not by the clock, but by the tidal charts, ever-changing weather, and close attention to the moment. How has this period changed me as a photographer—and as a human being? I think this question will haunt many of us for years to come. That said, what I have noticed is that my recent North Dakota photographs have a kind of weight that differs markedly from my pre-pandemic work there.
Alex, can you compare the draw of the ocean to what draws you to press the shutter in the urban environments you more often photograph in?
AW: I have always been drawn to the ocean—not so much as a photographer, but simply as a human being. There is something deeply soothing about living next to the ocean. That said, what drives me to photograph the urban world does seem fundamentally different than my motivation to photograph the ocean. In one instance I am looking for edges, for contrasts, and potential conflict. On the other hand, I am embracing calm. However, there is a crossover. In both instances I often find myself taking photographs that have a slight sense of enigma, a slight sense of mystery. There are a number of photographs in Waves where the viewer becomes a little disoriented. The same could be said of some of my urban photographs—though in an utterly different way.
Alex Webb, Mayo Beach III, 2020
Rebecca, Alex writes that you photographed the "waves of light" as they washed through the house. How was your experience of light during this period? How did it influence both your photographs and your poetry?
RNW: I think both Alex and I were drawn to those elusive four minutes of red light as the sun rises and sets. More often than not, we missed it. Occasionally, however, the gods of photography smiled down upon us.
This brings to mind Virginia Woolf's description of this transient yet resonant red light in her novel, The Waves: “At this hour, I think I am…the faint red in the sky…the silence and the bell.”
Lastly, have you returned to Cape Cod since that time, and do you find the same motivation to photograph it the way you did then? Is that same motivation there or has it changed?
AW: Both of us were quite startled by the fact that once we had each received a second vaccination, neither of us produced another image for this project. Clearly, the pandemic instilled both of us with a particular sense of urgency that drove us to create this work. And since then, neither of us has gone back to photograph the Cape—we’ve moved on to other projects.
RNW: That said, there’s a new project I’m slowly wading into on the Cape. During the pandemic, it was the longest, uninterrupted time in my life that I’d ever lived alongside the sea. I may not know where this new project is going, but I have a feeling that the sea—and its weathers—will guide its rhythm.
Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb's Waves is published by Radius Books.