“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. To celebrate the one-year anniversary of this series, reFramed is featuring the work of Magnum photographer Alex Webb.
Webb is best known for his vibrant and complex color work, especially from Latin America and the Caribbean. He has published nine books, including “Istanbul: City of a Hundred Names” and “Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba” (with Rebecca Norris Webb), the latter exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2011. His ninth book, “The Suffering of Light,” a collection of 30 years of his color work, was published by Aperture. Webb has exhibited at museums worldwide including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Guggenheim Museum in New York. Webb became a full member of Magnum Photos in 1979. His work has appeared in National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, Geo and other magazines. He has received numerous awards and grants including a Hasselblad Foundation Grant in 1998 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007. He is currently working on a second joint book with Rebecca Norris Webb in Rochester, N.Y., called “Memory City.”
Q: How and when did the idea for your latest book “The Suffering of Light,” — a 30-year retrospective — come about? What inspired the title?
A: The creation of “The Suffering of Light” began some years ago as a series of discussions with two different museum curators about putting together a mid-career survey exhibition and book of my work. Neither exhibition transpired; however in the process, the idea of publishing the book with Aperture emerged. “The Suffering of Light” evolved into an exploration of my primary photographic obsession for some 30 years — working a certain way in color as a street photographer, predominantly in the tropics. Aperture also decided to curate an exhibition of the work, which is now traveling.
The title comes from a quote from Goethe: “Colors are the deeds and suffering of light.” As I understand it, one of the tenets of Goethe’s theory of color is that color emerges from the tension between light and dark, a notion that seems to resonate with my use of color, with its intense highlights and deep shadows. Also, my photographs are often a little enigmatic — there’s sometimes a sense of mystery, of ambiguity. I think the title “The Suffering of Light” strikes a similar note.
Q: How did you select the images for the book? What was the editing process like?
A: I first went through my previous eight books, as they contain some of my most important bodies of work. There are about a half-dozen to a dozen images from each of these books in “The Suffering of Light.” Then I began to sift through other projects, some unpublished book dummies, some unfinished projects, some magazine stories. Ultimately, about 40% of the book selection is unpublished work.
That initial search resulted in perhaps 400 little prints. I began going through them, first by myself, then with Rebecca Norris Webb, who has been involved in the editing and sequencing of all my books since “Crossings” (2003). At some point thereafter, Rebecca and I began to also work with one of the abovementioned museum curators, Alison Nordstrom from the George Eastman House, who made further suggestions. The final selection of images for the book resulted from a collaboration between myself, Rebecca, and Lesley Martin, my editor at Aperture.
Havana, Cuba, 2004.
Q: What was the emotional journey like for you reviewing 30 years of your street photography from every corner of the globe?
A: Perhaps surprisingly, the actual process of pulling together the images for the book was not emotionally grueling. What proved simultaneously exhilarating as well as debilitating was the finished book. One part of me was excited and somehow fulfilled, as I had made perhaps my most significant statement as an artist. Another part of me, however, was anxiously wondering about the future, as presumably there are still some years of photography ahead of me. That big question of “What’s next?” can be daunting after producing a book like this.
Q: You have spoken about what informs the content of your work — borders, edges of society, and where cultures come together. What draws you to these themes?
A: Ultimately, I can’t fully explain why I have been drawn to borders and the edges of societies. Is it my fascination with uncertainty, tension, and complexity? Perhaps. That doesn’t, however, ultimately explain the obsession. After all, why should I be fascinated with such notions? What I do know is that I seem to come alive, photographically, in such places. The critic and photographer Max Kozloff once told me he thought I needed to be a little uncomfortable to photograph well.
I also wonder: If I fully understood my obsessions, perhaps they would cease to be obsessions?
Thessaloniki, Greece, 2003.
Q: I look at your work and I say to myself, Alex Webb must have an insane amount of patience. Your images are so meticulously layered, rich in color and light, and possess a wonderful visual rhythm. Where does this obsession come from? Can you tell me about the process of creating your images?
A: Again, I can’t explain entirely where my photographic obsessions come from. But perhaps the following begins to help. I come from a family of visual artists: My mother was a painter, draftsman and sculptor; my brother is a painter; and my sister, who went into science, became an ornithological illustrator. My father, though not predominantly a visual artist, was a publisher, editor, secretive fiction writer and occasional photographer (I learned photography from him at 10), who had an incredibly nuanced appreciation for the complexities of the world, literature and art. Growing up, we Webb children were immersed in art. Looking at and absorbing the world deeply with the eyes and reinterpreting it is clearly in my blood
But none of that explains ultimately just why I have chosen to wander the world with the camera looking for elusive moments. I just know that I still feel inspired by the challenge of pulling a photograph out of the chaos of the world, a photograph that simultaneously acknowledges but also makes coherent that chaos. It’s my process of visually trying to understand the world, of asking questions that may not have answers.
The sculptor Henry Moore, late in life after a long and successful career, said the following: “The secret in life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.” That quote resonates with my sense of the frustrations and difficulties of street photography. It also reminds me that my father once said — a little jokingly — to Rebecca that if there were a mythical archetype for me it would be Sisyphus, interminably rolling a boulder up a hill.
My actual process — on the surface — is not so complicated. I sense, I almost smell the possibility of a photograph. I try to follow the rhythm of the streets. Sometimes I walk through situations, sometimes I hang out. It all depends on what the world gives me. In the afterword to his book “Travelogue,” Charles Harbutt talks about how it’s not only that he’s looking for a photograph, but that sometimes the photograph is also looking for him. I like this notion.
Ciudad Madero, Mexico, 1983.
Q: With all the economic and political turmoil that we are experiencing here in the States do you think you might start photographing the social condition here?
A: After having spent nearly 40 years photographing predominantly outside of the United States — and when I have photographed in the United States my most significant projects have been at the edges of the country — Florida, the U.S.-Mexico border — I am intrigued by the notion of working more in the Rust Belt and throughout the U.S. Perhaps now, having explored borders and edges of societies elsewhere — places where different cultures come together, sometimes easily, sometimes roughly — I now can begin to perceive and photograph some of the seams and fissures in my own country.
Often when I look back at my books, the end of one book seems to give a hint of what the next book or project might be. The last picture in my first book, “Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds” is from Haiti, and looks toward my subsequent book on that troubled country, “Under a Grudging Sun.” The last picture in “The Suffering of Light” was taken in Erie, Pa., in the so-called Rust Belt, where I began to photograph in 2010 — initially in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but more importantly, in 2012, in Rochester, N.Y. For the past year, Rebecca and I have been photographing this upstate New York city, home to Kodak, which declared bankruptcy in 2012, and have just completed our second collaborative book, “Memory City,” which will come out next spring. This new book, quite different than anything either of us has ever done before, explores the world of Rochester as well as notions about film and time. It’s been an important project for both of us because, among other things, it has enabled me to move on from “The Suffering of Light,” and Rebecca to move on emotionally from “My Dakota,” an elegy for her brother and her home state of South Dakota.
Miami Beach, Fla., 1989.
Q: How has your collaboration with your creative partner and wife, Rebecca Norris Webb, enriched your life and work? I think she’s the coolest!
A: I feel so fortunate that Rebecca Norris Webb and I found one another when we did — albeit later in life. I can’t even begin to describe just how much she has enriched my life and my photography. I am a different person and hence a different photographer as a result of our relationship.
Our collaboration began with our beginning to edit one another’s work about a dozen years ago. What emerged was the following: Once I have completed my first edit of a project, the first person I show the work to is Rebecca, and vice-versa. We go back and forth with the edit, though the house rule is that the artist always has the final say.
Of course, that became potentially problematic when we started creating our first fully collaborative project, “Violet Isle,” our book on Cuba, because there were two artists. It was the most challenging project we’d ever attempted to edit. However, somehow — perhaps because after nearly a decade of living and working together we had learned to trust each other’s views — we managed to interweave our two distinct visions. I think “Violet Isle” became a more multilayered portrait of the island than if either of us had done a book on our own. By collaborating on “Violet Isle” we began to understand how our pictures could speak to each other — in fact, Pico Iyer, the writer of the afterword to the book, wrote that sometimes our photographs “rhyme.”
“Memory City” has been an even bigger challenge to edit than “Violet Isle” because it’s a book that not only explores the world of Rochester, but also includes our respective nods to film, which played an integral role in both of our creative lives, including helping us find our own particular ways of seeing. The book is punctuated by my photographs on my last rolls of Kodachrome, a film I used solely for some 30 years and that now can only be processed as black and white. Additionally, Rebecca is using the repetitive nature of contact sheets as a kind of visual elegy to film, specifically dresses women wear only once to a memorable — and often photographed — event. It’s only recently that this complicated edit has started to make sense to both of us. I’m sure it will go through more changes this summer as we continue to work on it together and with the publisher and designer, David Chickey of Radius Books.
Alex Webb/Rebecca Norris Webb website
Two Looks (Alex Webb’s blog)
Alex Webb at Etherton Gallery