Magnum photographer Alex Webb’s conversation with author and photography critic Geoff Dyer at the Look 3 photo festival provided a sweeping retrospective of Webb’s career, from his earliest black and white work through his development as a revered master of color photography on projects from Haiti to the US/Mexico Border, Florida, Cuba, and beyond.
Throughout the presentation he described his methods of working and ways of seeing, while giving credit to the happy accidents that resulted in several of his most iconic images.
But the program began on an emotional note for Webb: he told the audience that he was dedicating the presentation of his work to his mother, who died “somewhat unexpectedly” two and a half weeks ago, shortly after being diagnosed with leukemia. Webb went on to say that his mother, a sculptor, was “courageous in her art,” and taught him and his siblings “how to be committed artists.”
Webb’s conversation with Dyer proceeded chronologically through his career and work. Webb’s start was ordinary: he got his first camera at the age of ten, but a passion for photography didn’t ignite until he was about 15. The first two books that captured his imagination were Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment and Robert Frank’s The Americans. “When I started of course serious photography was black and white,” Webb said. “Color was sort of crass.”
By about 1975, he was photographing the American landscape in the spirit of Lee Friedlander and Charles Harbutt. By the age of 22, he was a Magnum nominee, which Webb downplayed as less of a big deal than it might seem now because there was a lot less competition back then, and nobody was talking about the death of photojournalism. Despite his early success, however, Webb said his work “wasn’t really going anywhere.”
Between 1975 and 1978, he realized that he needed to photograph “far away from New England, where I was from.” He made his first trips afield–to Mississippi, Haiti and the US-Mexico border.
The change of scenery “really shook me out of something,” he said. “I grew up in what felt like a slightly complacent world” of New York intellectuals (his father was a book editor and publisher, who worked with several famous writers.) The new places he was exploring were strange without being completely divorced from his cultural experience. “Some semblance of the world I understood intersected with this other world [he wasn't familiar with.] I can’t fully explain it, but clearly there are certain places that have gotten my photographic juices going.”
Initially, he continued shooting black and white, but soon realized his images were missing an element essential to Haiti and the US-Mexico border: color. By the late 70s, he was shooting in color because it “was the emotional photographic response to the places I was working in. If I had stayed in New England, I don’t know whether I would ever have started photographing in color,” he said.
The transition was awkward, however. While he was still shooting black and white personal work, he occasionally shot color when an assignment demanded it. “It was lousy, it was shit,” Webb said of his early color work.
But he explained to the Look 3 audience that he gradually developed a sense of color, including the color of light and how it can change so quickly outdoors. “Color is about emotion. That’s what I began to see and understand as a photographer,” he said. “On a trip to Haiti in ’79, all of the sudden I started to see in color,” he recounted.
Webb worked on numerous projects for years, many of them simultaneously: Haiti, the US-Mexico border, Florida, Cuba, the Amazon, and Istanbul. He also showed images from shorter projects and assignments in France, Germany, and Spain, and other places.
His Haiti project, for instance, began in 1975 and continued until 2000. He finally completed his US Mexico border project with the publication of his book Crossings in 2003. He made his first trip to Cuba in 1993, but didn’t begin shooting there in earnest until 2000, continuing that project through the publication of Violet Isle in 2009 (the book is collaboration with his wife, photographer Rebecca Norris Webb, whose images are interspersed with Webb’s throughout the book.)
Webb says it takes him a while–sometimes several years– to figure out whether exploratory trips to a new place will turn into a project worthy of a book. For that reason, he tends to have several projects percolating at the same time.
“I don’t always know a project is going to be a project until I’m well into it,” he said. Later in the presentation, he elaborated: “A project is like stepping off onto journey, but you don’t know where it’s going to take you or where it’s going to end,” he said. “As Rebecca [his wife] says, one’s photographs are wiser than one’s self.”
Lately, he’s started exploring a project about America’s industrial heartland, and expressed optimism about the prospects of that project at his Look 3 presenation. He’s visited cities including Eerie, Pennsylvania, and also Rochester, New York, to explore the demise of his film of choice: Kodachrome.
The discontinuation of the film has forced him to start shooting digitally, which raised questions from the audience about how the change has affected his work. Webb compared the difference between digital and film to the difference in sound quality between CDs and vinyl records. Digital “is a little cleaner than the world. Film feels like the messiness of the world,” he said.
But he’s resigned himself to the change. Had Kodak continued making Kodachrome, he said, “I probably would have been happy to photograph in Kodachrome until I died.” But the market is requiring him to switch, and he says, “I realized I can be a bit of a dinosaur, and stick with things too long. I thought that maybe it’s time to move into the 21st century.”
Describing his approach to his projects, Webb said he doesn’t do much in-depth research in advance. “I’ll read some fiction to get a taste of the place, and maybe read some guidebooks,” he said. “I bring books with me, and read them while I’m there. I want my visual knowledge of place to grow at same rate as my intellectual knowledge.” The danger of knowing too much before he goes, he says, is that it primes him to make images that represent aspects of the place, according to what he’s read, at the expense of what he might experience.
That approach of limited research, he noted, “is different from how most photojournalists [work],” but he added that he does more advance research before he travels to new places for assignments.
Webb says he prefers to shoot alone. “For me it’s a very solitary process. First of all, hanging out with me while i’m photographing is really boring. I’ll be here, I’ll be there, I’ll circle around, and come back.” (There are occasions when he needs to hire a fixer, and he’s worked along side Maggie Steber and other journalists in the Haiti when political tensions made it particularly dangerous there. “Another photographer or writer can pull you out if you run into trouble,” Webb said.)
Webb’s is capable of making images of enormous complexity, with shadows and light, reflection, color, optical illusions, juxtapositions, symbolism, and multiple layers of content. (See some examples here.) Not all of his images work so hard (and challenge viewers in the process) but almost every project includes notable examples.
When Dyer reminded Webb that the photographer has questioned the meaning of some of his own complicated photographs of Haiti, Webb responded, “I like photogoraphs that ask questions and open up possibilities. I certianly don’t have answers,” so his pictures shouldn’t pretend to have them.
One other noteworthy topic Dyer raised was Magnum. “How does it suit you being a Magnum photographer?’ he asked.
Webb said he was closer to other Magnum photographers earlier in his career. “But we all have gone different ways. We have families. Our work is going in different directions. Some aspects of Magnum are really great, some are problematic. Every Magnum photographer has gone through, ‘Im going to leave this fucking agency. I can’t stand so-and-so.’ It’s not an easy place, but anyone at any agency would say something similar.” He then added, “There’s a real question about whether Magnum is needed…The reason for its existence when it was formed sixty years ago isn’t there anymore.”