New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2011

As Far as an Outsider can Go
Alex Webb
The Suffering of Light: Thirty Years of Photographs
Bombardopolis, Haiti by Alex Webb. Source: aperture.org
Alex Webb, "Bombardopolis, Haiti" 1986

Alex Webb visits places to which he is instinctively drawn and walks around taking pictures in color with a small camera. He has not varied this simple method in over 30 years. He is, he insists, a street photographer, a wanderer at ground level, hoping to encounter “…the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known … just around the corner.”

Despite this simple formula, Webb’s work from the late 70s to the present – collected in “The Suffering of Light: 30 Years of Photographs” at Aperture Gallery – is anything but simple. Made in Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, Congo, Turkey and other “places of cultural and often political uncertainty – borders, islands, edges of societies … “, the pictures pay little attention to critical categories. They are loosely anchored in photojournalism – Webb was elected to Magnum Photos early in his career. But they also freely cross and re-cross the increasingly blurry frontiers between journalism, documentary and so-called art photography (Webb’s work has been a major force in blurring those labels).

The show’s title, “The Suffering of Light, ” is taken from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s lovely metaphor, “Colors are the deeds and suffering of light.“ To Webb this is more than just a poetic formulation. Like most photographers of his generation (he is 59) he started out shooting black-and-white. In 1975, a few years before he shot this show’s first picture, Webb tells us, he took a trip to Haiti that “… transformed me – both as a photographer and as a human being. “ After a few more experiences in the tropics, he knew he had to deal with “… the intense, vibrant color of these worlds … somehow embedded in the cultures … so utterly different than the gray-brown reticence of my New England background.” In 1978 he began to work almost exclusively in color and continues to do so today.

In the tropics Webb exposed Kodachrome film to saturate colors as deeply as possible in the full blaze of the southern sun. In the strong light, shadows become a rich, impenetrable black. In Webb’s palette these blacks are a sort of primary color. Far from denoting a lack of information, black becomes a fierce presence. It seems to tear away whole sections of pictures and swallow their hues. In some pictures doorways – or gorges and caves –open into a world of black, which seems to spawn abyssal shapes and creatures that cross back into this world. Like Webb’s clamorous reds and sensual pinks, or his alienating purples and melancholy blues (other descriptions may apply), black is here much more than a color. Webb continued to use Kodachrome till the bitter end, sending his film to Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, the last place to develop it. Dwayne’s closed its processing shop on July 14, 2010. He is now experimenting with a digital Leica and other color films, both positive and negative (see an interview about his recent work on Magnum Blog.)

Gouyave, Grenada by Alex Webb. Source: aperture.org
Alex Webb, "Gouyave, Grenada" 1979

If this show is a retrospective of three decades, as its subtitle suggests, it’s remarkable that the passage of time is almost invisible. In poor streets around the world, it seems, 1979 is almost identical to 2009. Our much-vaunted digital revolution is nowhere to be seen, for instance; even styles of clothing and accessories have barely changed. The streets are full of the same old junk, the same worn-out furniture and broken concrete, year after year.

On the other hand Webb’s interests and style over the 30 years haven’t changed much either. We can perhaps read “Thirty years of photographs” as polite information, New England-style. This show is not the usual survey through time, designed to sum up an artistic journey as it unfolds. The summary here could feasibly read: Alex Webb found his work and figured out how to do it. Then kept on doing it. (I’m not implying that Webb has exhausted – or even, as far as I know, fully tapped – the human or aesthetic preoccupations that drive him.)

Webb’s solutions to visual problems can seem prodigiously complicated. Often his pictures are divided and/or framed internally by trees, statues, lampposts, windows, doorways, blast holes – any device that marks off distinct worlds. The created mini-worlds are often oblivious or contradictory to one another; they may exist at different depths – and so be bigger and smaller – in the larger picture frame. They may sport jarring colors, wild and domestic animals, dancing people or desolate landscapes. They may all seem to be going in different directions.

Add to this Webb’s evident fascination with doubling devices – mirrors, shadows, reflective metals, paintings, posters, billboards, photographs, graffiti – and his openness to intrusions – truncated signs, mysterious limbs – from the unseen, out-of-frame world. These pictures are pushing the very limits of chaos, yet the images somehow hold together. At the show’s opening I heard a young woman say about one of the pictures: “It’s a collage!” “Yeah, but no one put those pieces together,” replied her friend.” “No one could have ever put those pieces together!” said the first woman.

She’s right. These may be the most compositionally complex photographs around that don’t depend on photoshop for their effects. In a way, looking at Webb’s pictures is like watching an old-fashioned magic show. What transforms sleight-of-hand into magic is the ineluctable reality of the hands, sleeves and coins that we try to follow with our eyes. Here it’s the un-fakeable reality of children, women and men – shown in ensemble – as they spin from exuberance to despair in the kaleidoscopes of poverty and upheaval. If we saw these people conventionally isolated, picked out and framed to receive our pity or our anger, the impact would not be the same.

Webb takes us as far as an outsider can go into these realities. Perhaps the complexity of the pictures gives us a glimpse into the everything-at-once, grab-it-quick-if-you-want-it experience of living with no safety net in the developing world. There is irony in the fact that such near-to-bursting compositions are often achieved by traditional strategies. Graceful S-curves and Z-scriptions lead our eyes into the picture space; shapes entice; edges direct or surprise; colors repel or caress and, in the end, everything somehow balances, even if a horizon is skewed or a person left floating at an odd angle in space.

Of all contemporary photographers, Webb may be the one who keeps the most visual balls in the air. (Lee Friedlander loads up his frames similarly, but often with unmoving objects.) I’d argue that Webb’s particular genius as a street photographer lies in two things: 1) an extraordinary ability to imagine/see pictures in the swirling midst of complex, unscripted reality and 2) unusual skills for capturing those pictures in visually coherent compositions.

In his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner describes spatial intelligence as – very roughly, the ability to manipulate spatial information as mental imagery – and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence – again roughly, the mastery of one's own physical movement, as exemplified by mimes, dancers and athletes. It seems to me that these ideas also describe what great “walking photographers” like Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winnogrand and Alex Webb actually do.

Seeing is one thing, but street photography also depends on highly-developed instinct, sure-footed physicality and perfect timing. Making his way down a street in the developing world, let's say – physically “threading through the maze,” intent on “finding a chink” – Webb is invariably an outsider. At least one set of eyes, possibly a dozen, are watching him carefully. He’s waiting for something to happen. What’s going on? What’s important? He’s taking in light, color, smells, shapes, the sky, buildings, signs, animals, machines. He’s registering the people as they move around him. Is that a picture? He can shoot more than one frame, but not many more, and maybe only one without changing the subtle mood he is trying to capture... No, it's gone. He keeps walking.

This is very different from a photographer shooting in his home town or suggesting changes to a model in front of his lens. Walking and photographing on the street in another country, another language requires an unusual trust in one's own inner resources. As well-known street photographer and teacher Tod Papageorge describes the process. "You walk out the door and—bang!—like everyone else, you're part of the great urban cavalcade...You're carrying an amazing little machine that, joined with a lot of effort, can pull poetry out of a walk downtown."

For over 30 years Webb has been brilliantly practicing his own version of living by his wits. The pictures in this show demonstrate a steadfast commitment to his ideas of what's important, what's true and what's beautiful. May he continue to walk and shoot pictures for another 30 years.

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This review was excerpted from Tim Connor’s blog "Looking at Visual Culture"

Alex Webb
The Suffering of Light: Thirty Years of Photographs


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Thursday, December 8 to
Thursday, January 19, 2012
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