Inspired by the iconic work of W. Eugene Smith, Rebecca Norris Webb traces the route of her father, a country doctor, in the new book Night Calls.
An introverted child, American photographer Rebecca Norris Webb remembers the pleasures of being alone while growing up in rolling hills of Rush County, Indiana. “I was most comfortable a few feet off the ground, usually on the lowest branch of a sugar maple or sycamore tree,” she says. “Hidden by the foliage, I learned a lot about light by watching it shimmer between the leaves. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been a daydreamer. Between ache and sky, I float by seeing.”
But beneath the glittering light of the open sky, a darker, more disturbing world would reveal itself. As the daughter of a country doctor, Norris Webb recalls the grim reality of the circle of life: “Death and suffering were frequent visitors: the farmer who died in a tractor accident; the boy who walked with a limp because of TB; the racially motivated murder of the daughter of one of my father’s patients.”
Imbued with a profound sensitivity, Norris Webb found voice through verse penning poetry until she found the words deserted her after college. Inspired to find a new vessel by which to channel life, she purchased a camera in the mid-1980s and traveled for a year, hoping the creation of images would spark poems upon her return.
“Instead, I fell in love with photography. I realized that the eye focusing on those images in my poetry was the same eye behind the lens,” Norris Webb says. After moving to New York to study at the International Center of Photography, she came across W. Eugene Smith’s iconic 1948 LIFE magazine photo essay “Country Doctor.” Adopting his practice of what he described as fading “into the wallpaper,” Smith chronicled the story of Dr. Ernest Ceriani, who was tasked with providing 24-hour medical care to more than 2,000 people living in Kremmling, a small town nestled in the Rocky Mountains.
“Dr. Ceriani was only a few years older than my father. They even wore similar fedoras,” Norris Webb says. “I remember thinking to myself: How would a woman tell this story, especially if she happened to be the doctor’s daughter?” Years later, she decided to find out, retracing her father’s route for the new book Night Calls (Radius).
Portrait of the Art in Pen and Ink
As a young photographer, Norris Webb remembers seeing Dorothea Lange’s prints for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and discovering a creative window in the extended captions that illuminated her photographs. The marriage of image and text spoke to Norris Webb, who has long incorporated poetry into her work.
“About midstream, while working on Night Calls, I realized the book was a visual conversation with my father, so it made sense to address him as ‘you’ in the texts,” Norris Webb says of the handwritten letters to her father included throughout the book, inspired by 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson.
“I’d memorized her poems as a child in Rush County, including, ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.’ With her correspondence, I was fascinated by how certain passages seemed to lift off the page into poetry. I remember running across this minimal note to her father: ‘Dear Father - Emily.’ Was it a poem or an unsent letter—or maybe both? Perhaps Night Calls is the closest I could come to this particular dash of hers.”
Norris Webb followed not only her father’s route but his work rhythms as well, photographing largely at nights and in the early morning when so many come into the world — and just as many leave it. Although many Rush County roads follow a grid, Norris Webb developed an affinity for meandering routes along rivers like Blue River Road, which skirts the farm where her father grew up and generations of their Quaker family once lived.
Whenever she could, Norris Webb would travel along gravel roads like Benson Road, which brought back vivid memories of Sunday drives with her family as a child in their blue two-tone Rambler station wagon. Night-blind as an adult, Norris Webb followed the river-loving sycamore trees that helped her navigate the bends along the road, especially on stormy nights when it became difficult to see much of anything at all.
Norris Webb and her father shared a common love for a good thunderstorm, and on night when the rain poured from the heavens and the lightening crackled overhead, Norris Webb would imagine her father there in the passenger seat beside her, her camera bag between them rather than his black doctor’s bag.
Rather than rush forth to create portraits of her father’s former patients, Norris Webb waited patiently until the proper approach revealed itself. In the final year of the project, she read about how August Sander adopted the manner “much like a country doctor making house calls” when he visited farmers in the German countryside to photograph them in their gardens and homes.
Adopting the gentle bedside manner of her father, a man of few words who understood that it is in silence that we can listen closely and see deeply, Norris Webb recalls visiting the home of Suanne Sloan Evans, whom her father delivered in the late 1950s.
“While making this collaborative portrait with her, I asked Suanne to let her mind wander,” Norris Webb says. “Struck by the dreaminess of her gaze, I asked her what she’d been thinking about while I’d been photographing her. ‘I was remembering when I was five and cut my knee,’ she told me, ‘and how your father carried me in his arms all the way to the hospital.’”
On the Road Again
Creating Night Calls was a way of honoring the legacy of her country doctor father, and his vanishing way of life. “Driving before sunrise on those deserted country roads, I could imagine his fatigue from working long hours—and the emotional weight he must have felt, while attending to the suffering of so many,” Norris Webb says.
“My mind often meandered, since early morning is my time for writing poetry, for, as my father’s daughter, I, too, am attracted to thresholds. Driving half-asleep along Blue River Road, I’d sometimes hear the first line of a text piece: You taught me to accept whatever came to the door: a bushel of corn, two porterhouse steaks, a bag of bittersweet horehound candy—your favorite—and the suffering each of us carry, sometimes nearly hidden, except for something about the eyes.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
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