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Book Review: Memory City


Book Review Memory City By Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb Reviewed by Tom Leininger Photography is as intertwined with memory as it is with light, shadow and surface. The individual film or sensor choice made by the photographer determines how memory is rendered, a choice that is as important as what the photographer puts in front of their camera. In their new book, Memory City, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb investigate Rochester, New York during the time Eastman Kodak was in bankruptcy.

Memory CityBy Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb.
 Radius Books, 2014.
 
Memory City
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

Memory City
Photographs by Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb
Radius Books, 2014. 172 pp., 45 coor illustrations, 9¾x12¼".


Photography is as intertwined with memory as it is with light, shadow and surface. The individual film or sensor choice made by the photographer determines how memory is rendered, a choice that is as important as what the photographer puts in front of their camera. In their new book, Memory City, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb investigate Rochester, New York during the time Eastman Kodak was in bankruptcy. They explore how memory, photography, film and the book making process come together to make a statement about a place during a particular time.

What does it mean to photograph in Rochester during this uncertain time? Webb chose to use his digital cameras in addition to Kodachrome that he processed as black and white. Norris Webb worked like she typically does with color negative film. These individual creative choices give the book extra meaning, and are explored further in a small booklet tucked into the back cover titled Notes on Film and Memory. Containing writing and contact sheets, it shows that both considered their working methods when it came to approaching a city defined by photography.

Memory CityBy Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. Radius Books, 2014.

Webb’s black and white images create scenes are geometrically complex. Instead of his usual focus on people, the blur of a person moving through a place accents the images. If he had chosen to use Tri-X, these pictures would not be the same. His choice exploits the photographic process for a desired creative goal, something he has done previously when working with the colors of Kodachrome. The black and white jolts the viewer into stopping and exploring; the pictures describe the light and texture of the place in new way. Alex Webb has gone digital; his desire to not let go of Kodachrome was perfect for the palette Rochester offered.

Memory CityBy Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. Radius Books, 2014.

Rebecca Norris Webb interprets a different side of the area by taking the reader into the homes of women and showing their prom, wedding, first communion and quinceaƱera dresses. This rounds off the hard edges of the book. Norris Webb also employs the contact as an object to be taken in totally, not just as a tool for editing. The 36 frames of dresses create a pattern of light and color that pops off the page. Norris Webb also effectively employs windows and screens to look into the lives of these women, but through a barrier. Reflections on glass reinforce the interior/exterior nature of photography and this book, but her portraits of women bring a hopeful note. Women have played an important role in the history of Rochester, and will mold the future.

Memory CityBy Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. Radius Books, 2014.
Memory CityBy Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. Radius Books, 2014.

Memory City is the second creative collaboration for the Webbs and Radius Books. David Chickey, the designer, helps to shape a book highlighting both the historical and contemporary aspects of Rochester by bringing together their distinct voices. He knows how to exploit their individual strengths and create a cohesive vision between to very different points of view. His design enhances the experience of the photographs with details like handwritten notes on the back of images that fold out from the page. Chickey is working with the idea of the photography book as photographic album and vice-versa, an idea that references nostalgia without veering into sentimentality, which is a real strength of the book. The timeline of Rochester, attached to the back interior cover, shows the ebb and flow of history in this company town.

Memory CityBy Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. Radius Books, 2014.

When the Webbs collaborate the total goes beyond what each photographer is able to accomplish on their own. Rebecca Norris Webb’s softer poetic images bring an interior feel to this project that balance Alex Webb’s known complex views of the downtown public spaces and suburban alleys. Their work compliments each other and together brings depth to the project that would be missing if this were an individual affair. Memory City is a meditation on working with photographic film in the former center of the imaging universe. We do not get a clear picture of what happened to Rochester and Kodak; that is still being processed. What is offered goes beyond a memory of a city, or a company, or a film.—TOM LEININGER


TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.

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