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'My Dakota': Photo project became elegy to brother

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A field of dried sunflowers, heads bent, surrounded by a swarm of blackbirds. A view of the prairie through a car window, a buffalo reflected in the mirror. A scattering of apples along the side of the road.

It’s Rebecca Norris Webb’s “My Dakota,” an exhibit at the Dahl Arts Center that showcases the contemplative side of the rugged South Dakota landscape, one that provided comfort as well as a willing subject for the photographer.  

“When I started the project in 2005, it was just really a photographic exploration of my home state,” said Webb, who grew up in Hot Springs and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I was trying to capture a more personal and intimate view of the West than I’d seen before. I wanted to show what all that space feels like to someone who grew up here.”

A year into the project, her brother died unexpectedly and her photos took on new meaning.

“The project evolved into an elegy to him. It seemed all I could was drive and photograph,” she said. “When my brother died, it left an ache, a gaping hole in my heart and in my family. For months, this aching, gaping hole felt as vast as the prairie and as broken and jagged as the Badlands.”

As she revisited the landscape of her youth, she found solace in unexpected places.

“I remember when I was most grief-stricken, I’d awake early after sleeping badly to photograph the Badlands at dawn. Those warm, red golds in that jagged landscape soothed something deep inside me. You see — in the right light — the beauty of the broken, the richness of the emptiness.”

Webb found that other South Dakotans could relate to the loneliness and comfort provided by wide open spaces.

“As I drove around the state working on this project, and I talked to South Dakotans — in Lemmon or in the Glacial Lakes region — every place I went, people identified with that, how that landscape can soothe you,” she said.

The resulting photos — ranging from a peek at a blizzard out of a curtained window to a look at a country road through a blurred, rain-spattered windshield — have resonated with those who have seen the exhibit since it opened in June.

“On and off I’d had doubts about ‘My Dakota.’ I was afraid it was too personal a body of work,” she said. “So I was especially heartened and pleased at the opening that I had so many responses and questions about the work. At the heart of ‘My Dakota’ lies a question: Does loss have its own geography?”

Webb, who is also a poet, has explored the relationship between people and the natural world in her work, which includes museum exhibits and three photography books. Her husband and creative partner, Alex Webb, has published nine books and has worked for National Geographic Magazine.

Now that her South Dakota exhibit is complete, she wants to help others find their vision of the state.

“I’ve shown South Dakotans and others ‘My Dakota,’ so I’d like the opportunity to see your Dakota,” she said.

An “Our Dakota” online community has been formed, with assignments for photographers. Submissions will be compiled into a slide show to be shown at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Sioux Falls in September and at the Dahl on Oct. 5. (For details, see box.)

“I set that up because I really love hearing people’s responses, but I’d also like to see responses,” she said.

She and her husband will be in Rapid City for a brown-bag lunch event on Aug. 7, and both will be showing work in the exhibit space at the Dahl. They will return for the “Our Dakota” slide show and will host a photography workshop Oct. 6-7 called “Finding Your Vision.”

“Just as you can find a voice as a writer, you can find your vision as a photographer,” she said.

The couple’s August visit will be a family reunion of sorts. Her parents, who still live in Hot Springs, will be there, along with her brother’s three children.

“They consider it their exhibit and their book, too,” Webb said. “I’m not sure how much or how deeply they’ve been able to grieve for their father. This book is kind of a road map for them — one way to grieve, through a landscape you’re drawn to and a landscape that draws you to it.”

Contact Deanna Darr at 394-8416 or deanna.darr@rapidcityjournal.com.

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