In Rebecca Norris Webb’s whimsical collection of photographs and writings, we are invited to muse on Rodin’s advice to an uninspired Rilke (to stare at an animal until you can really see it; it could take months, he warns) and Roethke writing about Rilke gazing at a panther. Originally from the Black Hills of South Dakota, her poet’s soul is moved by what she calls “urban animals”; that is, animals kept in zoos for human delectation.
The book’s first image presents a beluga whale, apparently soaring Concorde-like through a blue sky, casting a shadow on a huddled crowd below. Norris Webb’s pictures are all predicated on this one idea: that when you photograph an animal through glass, the resulting image depicts not only the animal but also shadowy figures in a sort of double exposure. We are watching the watchers. The results, if somewhat predictable, are also disquieting.
The multi-layered quality of the photographs gives them a dream-like, almost hallucinatory feel. The child’s face in the gorilla’s chest, the ethereal-looking woman in a shalwar kameez seemingly swallowed by a bear, the back of a man in repose overshadowed by an eagle. All could feasibly pose questions about where man ends and animal begins, or they could just be vignettes from a surrealist tableau; the chance encounter of a pair of knickers and a giraffe’s tail on a roll of film.
There’s certainly a sense of grace emanating from the work. However slight the idea, however fragile the fragments of her own writing might seem to a brutal critic, there is an integrity in the work that goes beyond the obvious ethical point about keeping animals in zoos. Photographically, it is the antithesis of the photoessay about human treatment of animals by Jan van IJken elsewhere in this magazine, yet its capacity to engage the reader in less than comfortable thoughts is almost as powerful.
At Norris Webb’s hand, the difference between the animals and the people sometimes disappears. It seems as though she has taken to heart Rodin’s advice. It seems entirely possible in these gossamer light photographs, that we can see the spirit of the object of her gaze. There is something of the shaman about her.