Magnum’s Alex Webb on the power of photography

Alex Webb is a master of capturing serendipitous moments in full-blown technicolour. Here he shines a light on three decades of his work

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Alex Webb, Slant Rhymes, Magnum Photos, USA
Grenada. Gouyave. Bar. 1979Photography Alex Webb

Magnum photographer Alex Webb has an eye for the unusual and a knack for capturing unexpected moments. With an acute focus on the more serendipitous frames, as opposed to simply documenting one thing, he finds influence in a melting pot of countries, cultures and subcultures. Speaking to us about his rich body of work, he opened up about his unwavering approach, explaining: “I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner.”

With a career spanning more than four decades, Webb is best known for his vibrant and complex colour work, especially from Latin America and the Caribbean. The American-based photographer has published 16 books, including The Suffering of Light – a comprehensive exploration of his colour work, and most recently, Slant Rhymes, with his wife, the poet and photographer Rebecca Norris Webb. This is the creative couples’s fourth collaborative book, along with Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on Street Photography and the Poetic Image (Aperture, 2014) Memory City (2014), and Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba (2009).

The creative couple see Slant Rhymes as a kind of visual dialogue, which echoes their 30-year friendship and 20-year creative collaboration: “Sometimes we find our photographic slant rhymes share a similar palette or tone or geometry,” explains Webb. While the photographer tries to avoid making “artistic statements”, his approach remains uncomplicated: “Photos need to talk, so words are not always needed. Slant Rhymes is a photographic conversation between two Rebecca and I, as we work together and apart.”

By putting the two projects together Webb and Norris hope to create an interesting and unexpected dialogue: “Sometimes we find our photographic slant rhymes share a similar palette or tone or geometry,” explains Webb. While the photographer tries to avoid making “artistic statements”, his approach remains uncomplicated: “Photos need to talk, so words are not always needed. Slant Rhymes is a photographic conversation between two Rebecca and I, as we work together and apart.”

As he prepares to speak this weekend at The Photography Show in Birmingham, we caught up with the Magnum photographer to find out about how he gets his perfect shot.

How did you get your start in photography?

Alex Webb: I learned photographic techniques from my father, a publisher, editor, and writer who, when struggling with his writing, sometimes photographed. However, it wasn’t until later that I fully embraced the medium. I do remember being given a small Kodak camera at about the age of six, but what I remember more vividly was using a Yashica A twin lens reflex a few years later to photograph the aftermath of our family car hitting a deer in New Hampshire. I vividly remember photographing the dead deer next to the crumpled car grill. 

Can you tell us about your most recent photo book Slant Rhymes?

Alex Webb: Slant Rhymes is a book of paired photographs – one image by me, one by the poet and photographer Rebecca Norris Webb, my wife and creative partner now for 20 years – photographs that “speak to one another” in some way.  Some of the images have never before been published and they are interwoven with short text pieces written by the two of us, some while we were working together and others apart. 

Your fascination with colour comes through in the collaborative project, was this conscious?

Alex Webb: My interest in colour kick-started in the 1970s, it was born out of a fascination with the Caribbean and Latin America – cultures where intense vibrant colour are intrinsic, if not totally embedded in the cultural imprint. I shifted from working in black and white to colour then and have preferred working in that way ever since. Somehow it always comes through.

Tell us about some of the last pictures you took...

Alex Webb: I just spent about 10 days in Houston, Texas, a fascinating town that – to my surprise – is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the US. The work is part of a larger body of work that I am currently exploring that deals with a number of U.S. cities.

“Photos need to talk, so words are not always needed” – Alex Webb

Is there an image that really stands out to you amongst your whole body of work?

Alex Webb: I tend to be most excited about what I am currently working on, so there are two images from Houston that I feel strongly about right now. But in a more general sense, the picture that I keep returning to, because it’s existence is so serendipitous, is “Boquillas”, 1979 – the boy jumping off the side of a building with the tipped cross behind. 

I like this picture because it is so unexpected. I was wandering around a deserted Mexican border town. I happened to have the camera to my eye and suddenly there was this figure, suspended in the air. Fortunately, I clicked the shutter when I did. But it was a total surprise…

Do you feel camera phones have democratised the world of photography? Or do you feel like that's a bad thing?

Alex Webb: What I think is good about the proliferation of camera phones is that almost no event will ever go unrecorded. Despite various governmental efforts to suppress knowledge and images, photographs of almost all events will get out to the world. Simultaneously, I do have some concerns about the proliferation of images. We are so inundated by images that we sometimes fail to look critically at them. There are a lot of mundane images out there.

What subjects or mediums do you want to individually explore in the future?

Alex Webb: After some 35 years of wandering the world, exploring cultures far removed from my own, I’m interested in trying to photograph in the United States again, especially in some of the lesser-known cities. In doing so, one of the themes that keeps re-emerging is the notion of borders within the U.S., the notion of multiple cultures living side by side. I’m also working on a joint project with my wife and creative partner, the photographer again, about Brooklyn – where we also live – called The City Within.

Alex Webb will be speaking at The Photography Show in Birmingham on 18 March from 3-4pm. Follow @dazed and keep an eye out for our Alex Webb post where we will be giving away two tickets to the talk. The Photography Show runs 18-21 March, visit the website for more information

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