Memory City by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb is an exploration of Rochester, New York, which paints a portrait of the city—home to Eastman Kodak for more than 125 years—in the months following the company’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2012. While the two photographers developed their series of images independently, they pay homage to the photographic medium together: Alex shot his work in both digital and analogue—using his last rolls of Kodachrome, the discontinued vibrant color film that can now only be processed in black and white—and Rebecca through color film portraits, landscapes and stills lifes that explore the relationship between film and memory. The book, published in 2014 by Radius Books was a winner in last year’s PDN Photo Annual.
PDN: While visiting Rochester, how did you connect with the city, its history and its residents?
ALEX WEBB: I initially approached Rochester very much as I often approach a city: wandering the streets, allowing my experiences with the camera to lead me where they will. Starting downtown, I gradually moved outward into the surrounding residential neighborhoods. But ultimately I was guided also by Rebecca’s and my increased awareness of Rochester’s rich, cultural history—from the early days of abolitionist and suffragette activity to musicians and poets as well as, of course, photographers. We realized that Rochester is a richly soulful city and we hope that the book reflects this discovery.
REBECCA NORRIS WEBB: I’ve always considered poetry and photography sister arts, since both share many of the same concerns: memory, passing time, indelible images, metaphor. So poetry was one of my windows into understanding Rochester, a city that a richly diverse number of poets have called home, including John Ashbery, Marie Howe, Cornelius Eady and Ilya Kaminsky. Taken together, their poetry allowed me to see this multilayered, multicultural city from a variety of different angles and viewpoints. In particular, the insightful and brilliant Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky—deaf since a misdiagnosed mumps at four, who’d moved to Rochester as a teenager after his family was granted political asylum, and, sadly whose father died a year later—has a line that first began to shed light for me on this struggling yet soulful city: “Time, my twin, take me by the hand through the streets of your city.”
PDN: How did you join your images and ideas into a cohesive story?
AW: We worked largely independently, sometimes sharing information about what we were discovering. But the key to our collaborations comes in the editing process. When we put together books, we often think of structural analogies to music. A big book is a kind of symphony; a small book a sonata. And the ultimate rhythm of this book, how we interwove color and black and white, portraits and street photographs, reflected the music that we discovered in Rochester: a contrapuntal kind of rhythm, reflecting the odd contrasts and juxtapositions of the city.
PDN: Has Memory City opened any doors for you or led to any new work?
AW: Rebecca and I see Memory City as the first of a series of collaborative books on the U.S. that we will produce over the next years. We’re now working on one book on a borough (Brooklyn) and another on two counties in Indiana.
PDN: Anything else you’d like to add (related to Memory City) that is new since winning the 2015 PDN Photo Annual?
AW: The project has now been exhibited at five different venues, most recently at the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco.
RNW: We’ll be giving a slide talk featuring work from Memory City on Friday, March 18, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Radius Books publisher David Chickey, who also designed Memory City, which has now gone into a second printing, as well as giving additional Memory City talks/book signings this summer in Milan and London. Lastly, I’d like to add that we couldn’t have created Memory City without the guidance and support of photographer and designer Rick Hock from Rochester’s Visual Studies Workshop, who sadly died a year ago. VSW is now in the process of fundraising for an annual month-long artist residency in his name, to continue Rick’s legacy of supporting his fellow photographers with their projects.
Interview by Jacqui Palumbo
The PDN Photo Annual is now open for entries through February 3 at