In light of the second annual Photo London fair taking place from 19-22 of May at Somerset House, London, Leica has partnered with Photo London, bringing an outstanding body of work from the prestigious Magnum photographer, Alex Webb. “Selections” incorporates a collection of powerful and intense color street photographs taken by the San Francisco-born photographer and his Leica M cameras. We interviewed Alex Webb to get document his thoughts on photography, Photo London 2016, and his artistic perspective and approach.
You are a great storyteller; many of your images have been globally acclaimed, to the extent where viewers might think some pictures are too incredible to be true. How much of a challenge is it to achieve this?
I’m not sure that “storyteller” is necessarily a term that describes me. I see my photographs as enigmatic, paradoxical moments, more suggestive and poetic than discursive and narrative. I like to think that my photographs question the nature of the world. Working the way I work — wandering the streets, allowing my camera and my experiences to lead me where they will — is a long and often frustrating journey. This kind of photography is 99% about failure. Only occasionally do the gods of photography smile down on me and I stumble upon a startling moment in the street.
A trip to Haiti you took in the 1970s transformed you as a photographer. You were originally a black and white photographer and this trip inspired you to explore working with bold, vibrant colors. Can you tell us more about this change in your approach to photography?
In 1975, I found myself at a kind of dead-end in my photography. I was photographing the American social landscape in black and white. The photographs were often a little alienated, sometimes ironic or amusing, but somehow they weren’t emotionally resonant. I happened to read Graham Green’s The Comedians, a novel set in Haiti, which fascinated and scared me, and I decided to go there. I was overwhelmed with Haiti. I saw a raw world, a tragic world, but also a world vibrating with an intensity of life — especially on the street. As I worked more in Haiti, Mexico, and deeper into the Caribbean and Latin America — places where intense, vibrant color seems almost embedded in the culture — I realized my black and white photographs weren’t capturing this aspect of these worlds. As a result, I began to photograph in color, which I continue to do to this day.
Your work offers a bold approach to color photography with exquisite lighting and composition, how much of a role does patience play when shooting these images?
I find that patience — as well as persistence and luck — are essential. The world only gives a street photographer so many chances.
You’ve since explored Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world with a keen sense of openness. Can you describe your experience when visiting these places and how has it inspired your photography?
All countries are different, with different histories and often complicated mixtures of cultures. So I certainly can’t generalize. However, I will say that I have often been drawn to places where there is an intense sense of life as lived on the stoop and in the street.
You have previously mentioned that you are not a typical documentary photographer or photojournalist, but a street photographer. How does the life of the street inspire your work?
All these terms — documentary, photojournalism, street photography — are ambiguous terms, and they can mean very different things to different people. And so I prefer to simply call myself a photographer. But if pressed, I prefer to be called a street photographer, because the heart of my work lies in the process of simply wandering the streets with the camera, trying to stay open to any experience or situation I encounter. For me, street photography suggests an emphasis on curiosity and discovery rather than preconceived notions.
Some would say that many up-and-coming photographers live at a much faster pace than what it used to be 20 or more years ago. A time when you had to be strictly disciplined and patient to develop your own film, etc. What piece of advice would you offer to young photographers?
Be true to yourself. Find fulfillment in the process of the work itself, because the rewards of photography — or indeed any art —are so few and fleeting.
The photographs to be shown at Photo London encompass a great portion of your career, including the work comprised in three of your published books. How did you curate ‘Selections’?
I simply chose some of my favorite images — including some of the same images Rebecca and I have hanging in our home in Brooklyn.
Over the years, you have mostly worked with Leica M cameras. Why did you choose to work with a rangefinder camera?
I like the small size of the rangefinder camera — which allows me to photograph as quietly and as unobtrusively as possible. Additionally, I like to be able to see the world I’m photographing all in focus, not on a ground glass. A rangefinder allows me to see simultaneous moments on different planes.
Rebecca Norris Webb is your wife and creative partner. Can you tell us more about your creative collaboration?
Our collaboration has its roots, beyond our love and affection for one another, in our mutual interest in both photography and literature — both of us majored in literature in college. However, while Rebecca continues to be a writer — often interweaving her lyrical text with her photographs. I only had a brief fling with writing fiction when I was in my late teens and early twenties.
During the early years of our relationship, we often helped edit each other’s photographs. Over the years, a kind of mutual understanding and symbiosis organically emerged. After about a decade of working this way, we decided to collaborate on a project about Cuba, which ultimately became the book and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exhibition, Violet Isle. Interweaving our photographs, we slowly began to see that, despite the significant differences between our work, our photographs spoke to each other in interesting ways, resulting in a more multi-layered portrait of the island of Cuba than either body of work did alone. Since then, we have continued to pursue our own individual projects—with each of us weighing in on the editing and sequencing of the others’ work—as well as continuing to work collaboratively on some books, including Memory City and Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on Street Photography and the Poetic Image.
Lastly, would you like to share anything else with our readers and maybe share something about other projects you might be working on?
We have recently embarked on two new projects, one of which will definitely be a joint project, on Brooklyn, called “The City Within,” and the other we’re still figuring out. Our projects are like journeys with no fixed destination—until we work through them, we don’t know just what they will be.
To know more about Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, please visit their website, their Two Looks blog, and follow them on Instagram. Follow Alex on Facebook and Rebecca on Facebook.
Find out more about Leica Camera Photo London details on this site.
Alex your pictures are so vibrant of life, so fantastic, they inspire me a lot. Thanks for your insights which help me to be patient en persistent. Best regards, Paul Struijk