Rebecca Norris Webb‘s Night Calls hit my Best List in a prime spot, sort of, clocking in as the “Best New Book that I Haven’t Reviewed (Yet)…” Well, now’s as good a time as any, and Night Calls is a great one with which to sort of kick of the 2022 review season.
I’ve made no real secret of my fanboy-ism for Norris Webb. I first stumbled into her work thanks to the Aperture Photography Workshop book she did with Alex Webb: Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on Street Photography and the Poetic Image. I was aware of Alex Webb before that book, and sorta came around to his high contrast hyper color at some point, but it was Norris Webb’s work that really hit me, and it hit me right from the start. I later found copies of The Glass Between Us and My Dakota, and I jumped on Night Calls as soon as I learned of it.
Honestly, I’m shocked that copies remain available… Not only that, at time of writing signed copies remain available. It’s honestly shocking to me, but, then, I’m a fan.
Night Calls is a quiet, still, peaceful book. Your mileage may vary, of course, and as I started flipping through it, I felt a stillness and peace about it. It’s something akin to the stillness I feel out in the Texas countryside, alone, on an early summer morning. Given the pictures were made in and around Rush County, Indiana, that sorta makes sense a bit, maybe. The writing is poetic and lyrical, and, as Norris Webb puts it, told at a slant. If you’re familiar to Norris Webb, you’ve probably read or seen her talk about her affinity for the Emily Dickinson poem. Other photographers seem to like this too, and I understand the attraction. The whole truth is just too much, too painful, too sour, too fatty, too whatever sometimes. We need to come to it from the side: not an Interstate to the Truth, but a windy country road to it; maybe we never really even get there.
Norris Webb has a really poetic statement in her introduction that sorta speaks to what she’s after in the book, the slant-ness of it, I think: “Driving half asleep on Blue River Road—where our Quaker family lived for more than a century—I’d sometimes find myself at the unmarked crossroads where family, history, memory, and one’s first landscape meet.”*
To be honest, when I first encountered this quote in the publisher’s blurb or another review, I found it a bit too cute or too polished or something. I’ve come around to it more reading it in context with the images and Norris Webb’s handwritten text, and I see why this “unmarked crossroads” quote features so prominently. Not only is it cute and polished, but it also describes what’s going on in the book and really sets a scene for reading Night Calls.
The images alternate between landscapes, driving images, and group or individual portraits as Norris Webb drove around Rush County, tracing her father’s patient logs and routes he took to deliver babies and all. Some of the babies Dr. Norris delivered are in their forties and fifties now, and a few appear individually or with their children and grandchildren in what Norris Webb calls “collaborative portraits.” An early group of portraits spread over the first 15 or 20 pages shows people at fourth of July celebrations, smaller, probably clandestine, shows in backyards, and a big group of people all lit up by a much larger, probably city, show at twilight. Other portraits feature women of a certain age, mostly at home, doing whatever it is people do in a collaborative portrait.
The most interesting pictures, for me, are Norris Webb’s use of reflections and glass: landscapes seen through water-droppleted glass or through the tracks left by an ice scraper in late-fall frost; landscapes reflected in home and car windows, with the interior visible through the shadows left by trees and Norris Webb and her camera. One early one is very hard to read and I wondered at first how she made it. I think bright sun, blue sky, and Windex—lots of it—are her only real tricks, and they work to make some really evocative and wonderful images.
The writing too is wonderful, poetic and evocative, and with Norris Webb’s background in poetry, you’d expect as much. Everything is sorta addressed to her dad, and she talks about: her movements around the countryside; photographs she wants to make and why (and then she goes and makes them); longer stories about things that happened in the past, people that were killed or died young; she mentions water, the river, floods, many times, enough that a smarter person might make something of, might provide some deep psychological insight or something… Alas, and with my apologies, you’re reading my blog. Anyway, I stand by my call: Night Calls was the best book I received in 2021 and that I hadn’t yet reviewed at the time I posted my 2021 Best of List. And after reviewing it, well…
Overall, I rate Night Calls a solid 4.2 stars.
As mentioned above, I’m shocked that Radius still has both unsigned and signed copies of Night Calls available (as of January 2022, anyway). Norris Webb signed the signed edition—which is what I have—in pencil on the last page. It works and makes sense, given most of the rest of the text appears to be written in pencil, and I’ll take care to make sure more of it doesn’t get erased.**
*Norris Webb, Rebecca. Night Calls. Radius Books, Santa Fe, 2020. unpaginated.
**Yes, in order to verify that the signature was a) real and b) in pencil, I took a small eraser to part of the long line between the ‘N’ and the dot that I guess signifies the ‘i.’ If I didn’t say anything here, nobody would ever notice or know…