Can there be a “perfect” photobook?
Martin Parr and Gerry Badger might have an answer. Jorg Colberg might too. Others would agree or disagree, offer alternates. Really, and depending on a variety of factors, there are probably many “perfect” photobooks.
Would any of the experts list Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota?
I’m a huge and acknowledged fan of Norris Webb’s work, and this signed, second edition copy is the first of her solo projects I managed to acquire.
It’s an incredible book, and I don’t even know where to begin.
In her Afterward, Norris Webb gives a brief history of the project: she began photographing South Dakota in 2005, her brother passed away unexpectedly in 2006, and she just drove and photographed, drove and photographed, drove and photographed, working though her grief with the steering wheel and the camera. My Dakota is the culmination? product? result? of that working-through-grief.
Norris Webb accompanies the photographs with handwritten text, penciled on, poems, aphorisms, little single-sentence stories. “Does the prairie long to be / an inland sea again? Does each wave of suffering / teach us how to swim?”
And Norris Webb’s photographs are… man. I wish I made photographs that looked like these, that had this sort of feeling. It’s not nostalgia; it’s more like memory. Some are purely about color, form, light; others are more vast, open, you can walk through them somehow. There are reflections, gaps, a whole project of looking-through, windows, curtains, water. The color is fantastic.
There is some kind of, I don’t know, mythological tale in it: there’s a three-headed dog, a plague of locusts, a headless horseman. There are buffalo and swallows, owls, deer. I could probably pull the 12 labors of Heracles out of My Dakota with ease, but I don’t think that was intentional, it’s not organized that way at all, or doesn’t seem to be.
It’s also not a road trip book, or not really, though you could get that out of it: buffalo out the car window, raindrops on the windshield, an abandoned house by the side of the road, your cousin’s house where you stop for the night, a motel room window, window displays on a struggling small town Main Street. Sure, it’s all there, but there’s something else. I just don’t quite know what it all is.
I just want to sit with this book for awhile longer and I can’t wait to pick it up again.
My Dakota earns a rare 5 stars.
I picked this copy up for under $50 from Half Price Books back in November of 2018. I suspect I had a coupon or something, as prices these days (for the second edition, unsigned) run over $100. You can order a signed first or second edition direct from Radius Books for $150. Now, I don’t have the money to buy one of these at present, and it’s a load of money to spend, but, just wow. What a great book. If you have the bucks for it, don’t hesitate, and if you have the pull, maybe lobby Radius to put out a third edition, maybe a mass market softcover. Every page is an absolute joy and worth your time, or, at least, my time.
I’m sorry to just gush about how much I like this book… I’m not a great book reviewer or anything, I just say what I think, what I feel, what I get out of the book, and this one grabbed me and won’t let go. Maybe other books grab you this way? Maybe you understand what I mean? I think “perfect” photobooks just must grab like this. I hope you understand.
Should you want a more competent review, check out Tom Leininger’s on Photo Eye and then go read the interview on the New York Time Lens blog thing. Both will give you a much more solid understanding of the book than the drivel above, but neither will prepare you for what the book actually is, how the pictures and text actually work together, what My Dakota actually does. For that, you need to hold the book in your hands and marvel.