The Aperture Gallery in Chelsea hosted a lecture/presentation by Magnum photographer Alex Webb. Webb is one of the premier documentary photographers today. His images are masterfully complex yet immediately engaging. His palette, often strewn with long and slashing shadows, evokes red, green, orange and yellow. I’m particularly drawn to his use of reflections, or combinations of interior and exterior sections. Alex Webb gives you the chance to see many worlds at once. Crossings—photographs from the US/Mexican border—has become one of my most-looked-at documentary books.
This presentation featured works from many points in Webb’s career and lead to his most recent publication called Istanbul. During the question and answer session, Webb acknowledged he has a good amount of patience while shooting on location. He’ll spend a few hours early in the morning and then again in late afternoon for what he calls a substantial day of work. But in certain situations, shooting midday can be useful. His first choice of film in his Leica is the discontinued Kodachrome 200 which in his opinion provides unparalleled depth and realistic deep color saturation. For prints, he’ll use inkjet or lambda printers.
Many of his images are so well-composed, one might suspect an effort to arrange people within the frame. Discounting this, Webb claims to stay true to pure documentary. One such photo that demonstrates the wonderful placement of his subjects is a 1993 image from Cuba entitled “Baseball Fans.”
At lectures, questions often persist about how a work is conceived; what are the secrets, what is the mindset, the influences? Webb’s inspirations include classic documentary photography (Bresson, Metzger), literature (Graham Green), and painting (The Cubists, Matisse), but he’ll also humbly point out that shooting four hundred rolls of film may be the practical formula to yielding a handful of good results.
Perhaps Webb’s most telling words reflected the ebb and flow of an artist’s progress. Early on in a career, the leaps are greater, the improvements are obvious. With subsequent projects and years, the evolution is less significant. The artist questions whether this will indicate a downward trend. But with this project, Istanbul, Webb believes he has moved a step forward in color and emotion. He doesn’t want, as he puts it, “to only be jumping up and down in place.”
Alex Webb is a 2007 recipient of a Guggenheim grant. More of his work can be seen at Magnum online.