The final INsight conversation of LOOK3 2012 is about to start, with Alex Webb, interviewed by Geoff Dyer, author of The Ongoing Moment.
Battered cars and dusty bare feet, shadows and silhouettes, dogs and roosters, soccer balls and upside-down kids–Webb’s images are brimming with color, movement, and life. “I’m always playing with that line,” Webb has said, “adding something more, yet keeping it short of chaos.” Over the last forty years, he has found that line all over the world, from Havana to Istanbul.
Geoff: It’s long been my dream to interview a great photographer at a major photography festival. And this afternoon, I feel one step closer to that. [Laughter] But seriously, I come from a primitive country, England, where we just last year appointed a curator of photography at the Tate.
I’m here primarily as a fan. And a fan with the best seat in the house. Alex, I thought it would be great to begin talking about how you got going as a photographer.
Alex: My mother was a sculptor. This is the head of a friend of hers. The reason this up here is my mother died 2 and a half weeks ago, somewhat unexpectedly. I’d like to dedicate this presentation of my work to her.
My mother was an incredibly strong willed woman. At 85 she had trouble with her hands and macular degeneration and couldn’t sculpt anymore. I think she just said fuck it, and there weeks later she died. My brother and sister and I weren’t prepared but it was ultimately the right thing. It’s amazing that at 60, I’m still taught something from my mother—she taught me how to die.
But she also taught me and my siblings how to live the life of a committed artists. Growing up, art was throughout the house. She made these huge masks for me for Halloween. She and my father took us to museums. He was also involved in the arts, a publisher and editor, a secretive writer, as well as a part-time photographer. I learned photography from him.
So it was hardly surprising that me and my siblings are all in the visual arts. Brother is a painter and my sister ended up an ornithological illustrator.
GD: When did you start photographing?
AW: I started when I was about 10 and started developing pictures. But it was later when I was about 15 that I rediscovered it and since then, ’67-’68, that I’ve been pretty much dedicated to it. I studied history and literature in school.
GD: Let’s start showing the pictures. Obviously you’re known as one of the supreme color phtoographers, what’s all this about?
AW: When I started photographing, I never considered the possibility of photographing in color. Serious photogrpahy in the ’60s was black-and-white. Color was sort of crass and advertising.
The first two books I really loved were The Decisive Moment and Frank’s The Americans. So initially it was all black and white.
This photo is from my first trip in 1970 to Haiti. At that time I was sort of struggling.
GD: The extraordinary thing for me seeing these, is they are already looking like Alex Webb’s. How old were you?
AW: I was 23.
GD: It’s already there.
AW: Well at this time I had been photographing since high school and through college. I technically became an applicant to Magnum when I was graduating from college. Of course, it was a really different time then.
But with my work on Haiti and the Mexico-American border was a different direction. I started to do work that was more personal and emotional.
These pictures come from Moun Bayou in the Mississippi Delta and I met a woman at this fried chicken shack. I went home with her and her family and continued photographing them for several weeks.
AW: During this time, I realized I needed to photograph far away from New England where I was from. But I also realized as I worked deeper into these places, there was something missing. What was missing was the color of these places, especially Haiti and the U.S.-Mexico border.
This is from the U.S.-Mexico border; I started the project in black-and-white and ended in color.
GD: You said Graham Greene’s The Comedians lured you to Haiti in the first place.
AW: Absolutely. Literature definitely informed where I decided to go and the structure of my first books, especially the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
GD: You say, some of my photographs are like background for certain novels. I’ve seen your photos so much that I think of it the other way around.
AW: Yeah, I’ll go tell Garcia Marquez that. [Laughter]
GD: Ok, so here we are, boom, in color.
AW: And you can see, with color, there is something else entirely.
GD: That’s true, but already in black and white we see what you are famous for. This is such a well known picture. Can you tell us about it.
AW: I had an assignment and I was riding with a group of border patrol and I saw this scene starting to happen and I said, stop the car, stop the car. And I ran out and took a few frames. There is so much serendipity in photography. This is just one of those moments that the photography gods gave me.
GD: This introduces another Webbian characteristic: the Webbian antigravity.
AW: I saw these shapes and took a few frames with no one in it, and then this guy came and jumped down from the roof and I took one frame and that was it.
GD: Tell us about the transition to color. Was there an awkward period?
AW: Every once in a while I would get a job that required color, and the pictures were shit. I had no sense of light or color. Then I took a trip to Haiti where all of a sudden I started to see in color. I started to understand that color is really about emotions. Obviously light is always important as a photographer, but what about the color of the light?
AW: This is an interesting picture. It was taken in Uganda at a time of extreme tension. I had been arrested. I didn’t even look through the viewfinder. Again the god of photography.
GD: So sometimes when people go to world travel spots, the caption is so important. But this is a photo that just happens to be taken in Uganda, it’s not a Ugandan picture.
AW: No I don’t think that pictures calls out and says that’s Uganda.
GD: This friend of mine who you taught at ICP she said about your pictures, they’re so complicated, she described them as migrane pictures. Where are we now?
AW: We are in the Dominican Republic. These are all from my first book.
GD: Do you feel by this time you are already a mature Alex Webb, you’ve found your voice?
AW: I think the interesting thing is…I feel now that I take many more good pictures, but the really special ones happen just as rarely. 1979 I took three of the best photographs I’ve ever taken, the first year I really committed myself to color. It’s not just that you’re out looking for a photograph, sometimes it’s looking for you.
GD: Now this is not antigravity—this is like a failed parachute.
AW: This is Coney Island.
GD: It’s a nice reminder, your pictures aren’t always these complicated things.
AW: Look I think this goes back to the idea that you’re working in the world. The world doesn’t always give you complicated. “If you put a painter in a white room, whatever they do relies on the limit of their imagination. Put a photographer in a room, they can take a white photo, a black photo, a grey photo, and a self-portrait.” With photography, you can always say, that happened. That’s part of the charge I get out of photography, to be able to say, “That happened.”
GD: We’re about two pictures away from Haiti. One of the things I like about your work, I feel if we call it documentary we don’t do it justice, if we call it photojournalism we don’t do it justice, if we call your pictures art, that doesn’t do justice either. Are you happy with that sort of triangulation of what you do?
AW: I think those terms are often vague. We try to come up with categories but I’m not sure we ever really define them clearly. I’m most comfortable being known as a photographer—beyond that, maybe a street photographer.
Photography is a very malleable medium in our society too. It has multiple functions more than any other form, I think.
GD: How does it work when you’re on assignment. Do lots of your photos come up for inclusion in your own work or is that afte the assignment?
AW: I work simultaneously for the client and on my own work. I’m very honest about that and I always fulfill their needs. But I’m out there seeing and the more time I’m out there the more possibility for photographs. I wasn’t brought up in the era of Eugene Smith railing against Life for not including some of his photos. I understand that magazines have their own agendas and audiences. There’s no reason that needs to follow my personal agenda.
GD: We’re in Haiti now.
AW: This started in ’86 right after the fall of Duvalier, the first time I’d been back in six years. Many of the pictures mirrored my earlier pictures, but there was also this sense of excitement. At the time I was also working in Mexico. And all of a sudden, Haiti really took over.
GD: There’s a lovely line in the book from that you had missed the photojournalistic news photos and you arrived to calm.
AW: My strength is more in the background. Feeling the passage of everyday life. There may be the suggestion of the possibility of violence, but it’s not outright.
GD: Stanley was talking about all his fixers and Donna bout being part of a group. You seem to be more a solitary figure.
AW: Generally I like to work alone. Sometimes I’ll hire fixers if I don’t speak the language, especially for an assignment. But I do like to work alone. First of all, hanging out with me when I’m photographing is really boring. I wander around and sometimes I wander off because I think if I stand there the situation will change because of me.
GD: So you’re wandering around, but are you also reading stacks of books about a place?
AW: Yes. I’ll usually read some fiction about the place that gives me the taste of it. And then some guide books just to know the basics. And then I bring books with me and I read them when I’m there. But what I want to do is that my visual knowledge to grow at the same rate as my intellectual knowledge of it.
So by the end of a project I know a great deal of the history and politics, but it’s a process. When I work for a publication I read more extensively.
AW: The Haiti project started in ’86 as an extension of my earlier work. Then as Haiti exploded in ’87 it did become more of a photojournalistic record, albeit from my very skewed point of view.
GD: Ok so you’re traveling to Haiti, but you’ve also got simmering other bodies of work. How do you know….sorry you wanted to talk about this picture.
AW: This is a man who was probably killed by Duvalier’s crew. There was a kind of reign of terror, every day bodies would turn up in the streets. Actually I was with Maggie Steber when I took this. She took a very different picture that has much more to do with just the man. This was a time I made exceptions to working alone. Many of you will know, it’s really dangerous in a time like this working by yourself. During this time I worked a lot with Maggie and other journalists. But Maggie is someone who we managed to work something out so we could work well together.
AW: So you asked about projects intersecting. First of all, I don’t always know if a project is going to be a project, often until well into it. For instance, with Haiti, I remember talking to a photographer there and saying, oh you’ll probably do a book, I don’t really know what I’ll do. And then of course I did a book.
And then it’s a pragmatic thing. I can’t usually get money to go to one place for a really long time. I can get a little money to go for a little while, and then somewhere else.
GD: One of the things I love about your pictures, they’re not answering questions. They’re always asking questions.
AW: The world’s a really complicated place. I certainly don’t have the answers, so my pictures definitely shouldn’t pretend to have them.
GD: Here we’re in Florida. So at this point you’ve mapped out a band of the world where you like to work, in the tropics.
AW: Yeah, I really felt these intense colors was the right emotional response to have to these places. If I’d stayed in New England, I don’t know if I ever would have started working in color.
If we look hard at my different books, it’s clearly the same photographer, there are different emotional notes that run through them. Florida is much more humorous than Haiti. Cuba is more romantic and lyrical.
GD: With this picture you’re in…
AW: Miami. Florida pictures were largely ’88 through ’90. And it wasn’t published until ’96. This is Miami Beach just before a storm. I seem to have found a lot of storms in Florida.
AW: This is the first time that cotton candy emerged in my work. I don’t like cotton candy, I think it’s horrible, but I love photographing it.
And now we’re in Paraguay. I did a project there for National Geographic. There is an unpublished dummy from Paraguay out there.
GD: Why didn’t that happen?
AW: There aren’t any publishers jumping for a book on Paraguay. I had a lot of trouble just doing the Florida book.
GD: Do you feel that you’ve released the right number of books you’d like to have done? Are there bodies of work you feel are so great you’d really like to get it out there?
AW: I would like to publish the Paraguay work. I’d like to publish a version of Dislocations as a more mainstream book; it’s limited edition of 40 right now. There’s a piece of fiction set in Haiti with photos running through, and I have ambivalent feelings about publishing that.
GD: Now we’re in Munich, where you surf on the river. This is a good time to talk about your moments. Were you waiting there for a day and a half?
AW: This is a good example about working in film. This picture, I took a couple frames, I had no idea I captured that surfer right there as if it was a rifle scope. I discovered it when I opened the yellow boxes and started looking through the transparencies. There was something exciting about going back and rediscovering the work through the process of editing, that doesn’t really happen with digital.
GD: Are people calling you to go places all the time?
AW: Oh yeah, everyone. [Laughter] Look, there is a high level of chance for where I end up taking pictures. It’s an incredibly erratic existence as a photographer. Seems to be feast or famine. I’m always scrambling to find money to do what I want to do. And most of the time failing.
GD: In relation to that, how well does it suit you being a Magnum photographer? Donna was saying she liked not being part of an agency.
AW: My relationship with Magnum has changed as I’ve changed. When I was younger it was very intense with other young photographer. Then we all had families and kind of went our own way. At this point it’s probably more advantageous for me to continue with Magnum than not, but I have my doubts. But anyone in an agency would say that probably.
GD: This is something I tend to forget about your work…some of your pictures are really funny.
AW: This is true.
GD: Someone was saying that surrealism fits quite well with photography. And you said your parents were showing your images from DeChirrico?
AW: I mentioned that art was very present with my parents. When I was five my parents dragged my to the Eufitsis.
There’s something that intrigues me about how the first world and third world cultures come together. I’ve consistently responded to those places wehre cultures come together.
GD: Are you comfortable going to a place for a few short days or longer?
AW: It really depends. Some places a few days are enough and some not at all.
GD: Is it true to say that over time your pictures have gotten more complicated?
AW: I think my photos have gotten more complex, but I do think the Istanbul work, which is coming up, is the most complex because it’s such a layered city with so many cultures.
This is my son Max in Costa Rica. I took him to Costa Rica and we did a little book. He took pictures of Costa Rica and I took photos of him. I never made a real effort to get it published. But David Streddle looked at it once and said, you know, Max’s pictures look much more like Gilles Peres photos.
AW: Now we’re in Panama. This came from a project I did for National Geographic. U.S. military third-world combat training.
GD: I wanted to ask you about Istanbul. There’s this new film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. I thought, my god, his view of Turkey has been informed by Alex Webb.
AW: I photographed Istanbul because of what Istanbul looks like. That’s one of the things about photography. There is always the world and the world dictates certain things about what you’re doing.
This is from a trip to Haiti in 2000 my last trip. When I do a book it cuts something off, so I don’t feel like doing another book there. But I did have an assignment there.
GD: How do you feel about this retrospective, Suffering of Light, do you feel like it’s a bit of a tombstone?
AW: That’s an interesting question, but let’s talk about Cuba first. At this time, Rebecca and I were both photographing in Cuba. I was doing this work much like my usual stuff. She was finding these quirky collections of animals people had in their home.
And we hit on this idea of doing a book together. Originally it was going to be a book with two chapters for her and me. Then we decided to put them together.
AW: Now we’re back in Cuba. This is one of those pictures where you think it might be something. You get this little surge that you got something, but I didn’t know it would look like that.
This came from a Magnum projects where we were asked to photograph different parts of Greece.
GD: What about your politics….
AW: My politics emerge out of the situation. I tend to be sympathetic to those who are not in power. But I also have a strong awareness of the complexity between a photograph and how a photograph is perceived in the world. Just because you take a photograph that shows something horrible, doesn’t mean the viewer will have the reaction that it’s horrible and should change. I don’t have high expectations my photographs will transform things in a substantive way. But they do teach people about Haiti, for instance. Possibly about the complexity of things there.
AW: Now we’re back to Cuba. This is around the time Rebecca and I decided to make this into a collaborative work. That was really exciting. We had edited together, but the artist always has the last say.
So this interweaves two bodies of work that are really different, but somehow speak to each other. We were incredibly happy with the book. We really enjoyed putting together work afterward. We don’t ever photograph together. That, is a problem. But editing together is really exciting. What was exciting about this book was that it felt really organic the way it grew. We are exploring the possibility of another collaboration now.
GD: This could be a good place to address Suffering of Light.
AW: There’s no doubt that bringing out a survey book…it does coincide interestingly enough with a number of things that have happened in the photographic community. One is the disappearance of Kodachrome. Another is this way of working doing this kind of dance with magazines doesn’t really work anymore. Many of those magazines are gone. So I have to work differently. I have to think professionally differently.
One of the things I sometimes think of books, it’s that the last picture is a closure, but it also opens up a possibility for what’s to come. This picture from Erie, PA, looks forward. We’ve been working more in the U.S. I’ve been photographing the edges of the United States. Florida, U.S.-Mexico border. Now I like the idea of exploring internal borders in the United States. I recently photographed the Mexican community in Chicago. I feel like it’s taken me 30 years to get to a place where I can take these photos in America. Now I feel I might be able to capture the strangeness of America.
Q. Do you ask people to move for you?
AW: I don’t ask people to do anything. For me it would be meaningless for me to do that. The reason I’m a photographer and not a painter is because what I take is something that happened on some level. If I ask people to do something, why not be a painter? There is something powerful for me to know this moment happened in the world.
Q. You mentioned complexity. And you’re dealing with dimensionality. The play of is this two dimensions or three dimensions. I don’t know how to ask the question…
AW: Look, I’m interested in deep space. You can talk about the characters that make up a photograph: the color, the structure, the light, the space. I almost think the space is an emotional character that influences how we feel about something. We have a narrow depth of focus but the camera can have a very deep depth of focus, so we can see many things that are happening at once.
Q. Did you go to Haiti during the quake?
AW: I was in the middle of another assignment. But when I was done I wanted to go but part of me though, can I do anything? I don’t know if I have anything more to say about Haiti. There were lots of good photographers there. But it does still nag me that I didn’t go.
When you do a book, I think you have to be careful. For me, once I do a book, I’m on to something else.
Q. Seeing your work on the big screen and your Kodachrome images versus the digital images. There’s a difference but I can’t put my finger on it.
AW: There’s no doubt there’s a difference. If they continued making Kodachrome I probably would have been happy photographing with it until I die. But they didn’t. I work with digital partly because I’m a working photographer. And I also realize I can be a bit of a dinosaur and stick with things too long. I thought maybe it was time to move on. I have some prints from a digital file that are really beautiful. It’s a different language, but I think what I’ve tried to do is make it as comparable to film as possible. I use a Leica still. I don’t look at the screen too often, until I’m out of a situation.
Q. Why are you fascinated by borders?
AW: I have to say that I don’t have a good answer for that. Maybe if I were in deep psychoanalysis, I’d know. But if I were in deep psychoanalysis maybe I’d never take these photos.
I do think some of the places I decided to go was in response to my childhood. I had this wonderful upbringing, but I grew up in this slightly complacent world. A world fo New York intellectuals. Going to Haiti and these other worlds really shook me up. I realized there were things I needed to experience. The border had some familiar things and some unfamiliar. There are certain places that have gotten my photographing juices going, but I can’t clearly say why. You just smell the possibility of something and you follow it.