A Keen Eye For Color; The Photography Of Alex Webb

Alex Webb's world is a vision of color. Each place he visits offers a new and expressive luminance. His joy in color is apparent as he speaks about Latin America, the Caribbean, the particular color note to the brown of Africa in the early morning and late afternoon light and the red tones where the aluminum in the soil brings forth the warm hues of the earth.

Mexico, Mexico City, 2003.
All Photos © Alex Webb/Magnum Photos, All Rights Reserved

In Istanbul he is intrigued by the presence of neon toward the early dusk, the mixed light that distorts the reality of the surroundings.

Webb's pictures open a wide spectrum of color that offers varying sensations as we travel from the humid, muted shades of the Amazon to the brilliance of a Mexican landscape. The photographs are about emotion, about what he feels and responds to. He considers himself "a somewhat traditional street photographer," tipping his hat to Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Frank, Winogrand, and Friedlander.

Member of Magnum and author of six books, Webb speaks of his own photography. "My process," he says, "is very simple. I walk out the door and I wander, letting my camera lead me where it will. I have no elaborate agenda and my photographs are about exploration and discovery. That is what lies at the heart of street photography."

Webb is part of a creative family, his mother a fine sculptor and his brother an accomplished painter. His own instincts, however, ruled out sitting in front of a blank piece of paper or an empty canvas or to come up with something from his imagination. He needed to go out and look at the world and react to what he saw. There was something imperative about leaving the environment he was familiar with in the Northeast and heading toward the light and color that would lead him to places where life is lived on the stoop and in the street rather than behind closed doors.

U.S.A./Mexico, 1979.

In college his majors were in literature and history and Webb will tell you that a lot of his photographic instincts may well have emerged from reading authors like Joseph Conrad, the Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

His mentor and teacher in photography was Charles Harbutt, who played an important role in Webb's development. "My pictures are not really linked to Charlie's," he says, "but there was something about his attitude toward photography that touched me, about how the photographer's eye and his personal inner world and outer world combined and how this is really where a good photograph is born. Charlie encouraged my sense of personal vision. I studied with him in 1972 at a time when I had doubts about my future in photography and he was always encouraging me and telling me that the direction I was going was okay."

Originally Webb worked in black and white but soon found that he was photographing where color was a major part of the world and cultures he worked in. For Webb, color is emotion.

"I still like something tangible that comes out of the film camera and admit I am a dinosaur," he says, "but the way I layer photographs is something I could not really accomplish with most of the digital cameras that exist today. Basically, the relationship between the focal length of current digital cameras and the way spatial depth works is different than the traditional film cameras so I couldn't take exactly the same photographs.

Mexico, 1979.

"This may change. I work now with little rangefinder Leicas, which are small and unobtrusive and if I wanted a substantial digital file I would need to use one of the larger SLRs. It would be a very different situation working with a larger camera since a lot of what I do is linked to the fact that I can come into situations somewhat unobtrusively. When I am closer to my subject I experience the situation much more. I'm more involved when I'm 6 ft away rather than 12."

Kodachrome is still Webb's film of choice. "I'm one of a dying breed," he says, "but I like the combination of the intensity and at the same time, the neutrality of Kodachrome that a lot of the E6 films tend not to have in certain situations. I don't know how much longer they will continue to make Kodachrome. At this point there is only one place in the US that processes it."

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GeraldJones's picture

There are lots of things to learn about when it comes to creating outstanding photographic works. - Eric Ludy

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