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I am currently obsessed with Alex Webb and the way he piles everything on top of everything else. Working on a post last week, I was reminded of a commercial shoot I saw last year.

© Alex Webb/Magnum Photos. CUBA. Sancti Spiritus. 1993. Baseball fans.

@ Ben Baker. FedEx Board of Directors

Ben Baker‘s website and interview. Alex Webb‘s website

Magnum and Haiti intersect in a number of portfolios. Having done a lot of looking recently (here, here and here) Alex Webb‘s photography stands out.

Webb’s photography is unmistakable; he carries his busy compositions across the globe – Turkey, Santo Domingo, Mexico, Haiti …

Alex Webb. TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. View from a barbershop near Taksim Square.

Santo Domingo. 1980. ©Alex Webb/Magnum Photos

© Alex Webb, Ponce, Puerto Rico, 1990

© Alex Webb/Magnum photos. TURKEY. Istanbul. 2004. South of Uskudar. Along the sea wall in the late afternoon.

I’ve often wondered what Webb’s thinks when he approaches groups of people and accoutrements. Indeed, I’ve wondered if (at this point) sniffing out these hectic visual environments is an unconscious practice.

On his blog today, Webb responded to a reader’s question about the framing of his images:

Saying “to run an anatomy of the scene” makes the process sound highly analytical.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

My process is not about thought, not about analysis, but rather about feeling the totality of a scene and responding intuitively, emotionally, non-rationally.  I have sometimes used the word “smell” in this context (and I think I am paraphrasing Cartier-Bresson) specifically because smell is sensory, not rational. The process can be a bit mysterious.  When I photograph, I sense the possibility of something — something about the feel of a place, the situation, some impending moment, the light, the color, the space, the shapes — and I often hang out and wait, hoping that something will happen, something will emerge.  But I’m never sure quite what this something is.

For me, the elements that go into the picture are often emotional elements: not just what is in fact “happening” in a situation (the purported “subject” of the image), but the space, the color, the light.  Form isn’t just form, it can be emotion.  Color isn’t just color for color’s sake, it, too, carries emotion.  Sometimes a shape in the foreground becomes some kind of transformative element, sometimes an empty space strikes a special emotional note, sometimes the color changes what wasn’t an evocative scene into something very different.

[My underling]

The term composition is more appropriate to describe Webb’s photography than that of his contemporaries. He stalks opportunities to frame multilayered compositions, in that he puts himself in the best spot and then lies in wait. And his compositions, akin to music, “strike emotional notes”.

Webb states his process is not analytical, but I wouldn’t say it isn’t disciplined.

View Webb’s Magnum portfolio and a sumptuous Webb selection of images with high contrast compositions from The Edelman Gallery.

Magnum has produced a three minute In Motion piece on Haiti:

The multimedia piece as a whole is disappointing. It features the photographs of Abbas, Christopher Anderson, Eve Arnold, Jonas Bendiksen, Bruce Gilden, Cristina Garcia Rodero and Alex Webb – all incredible photographers, but bundled together they compete against (and detract from) one another.

Abbas’ silvery images of Hounsis, ladies dressed in white (2000) … mix with his images of Saut D’eau (2000) … mix with his images of the Pentecostal Protestants of Jacmel … mix with Gilden’s hard-flash from Plaine du Nord (1985) … mix with Gilden’s street photography in Port-au-Prince (1990 & 1994) … mix with Eve Arnold’s quiet compositions (1956) … mix with Christopher Anderson’s menace … mix with Jonas Bendiksen’s beautiful retreated studies of Haitians in agrarian landscapes and activities … mix with Rodero‘s image of the rituals of Soukri, photos of the Carnival at Jacmel and Souvenance …

The slideshow concludes with a vertiginous volley of portraits of Restavek child servants/slaves by Paolo Pellegrin (who strangely has no credit line).

It’s all too busy and without context and frankly does nothing to describe the country of Haiti. It is in some ways just a limp, late addition to the flurry of visuals we’ve been served these past eleven days.

Magnum would have been much better promoting the recent traveling exhibition Disposable People – Contemporary Global Slavery, and making ‘In Motion’ pieces for contributors Webb and Pellegrin.


Fototapeta‘s interview with Webb is well worth reading. He talks about the cultural differences between the US and countries of Central and Southern America (with repeated references to to Haiti); about open energy and discrete action; about shooting in colour and in B&W; and about reconciling photojournalism with an inevitable personal reaction.

Webb notes his ongoing balancing act,

“I always felt to some extent that I am out one fringe of Magnum, but I was brought into Magnum particularly by Charles Harbutt, and Charles was really oriented not towards traditional photojournalism at that point. I mean at that point Marc Riboud was doing a lot of rather traditional photojournalism. Charles was encouraging a much more personal kind of vision of the world, and that influenced me much more. I have taken elements of that, which is a very personal approach, but taken them into situations that people do not associate with a totally personal approach like going somewhere else, like Haiti, where political violence takes place, therefore it is photojournalism, but I am actually taking a very personal approach inside places like Haiti.”

HAITI. Port-au-Prince. 1987. A memorial for victims of army violence. © Alex Webb

I picked out the image by Alex Webb (above) as my preferred image because, while it’s subject is death, it is – as a single image – actually about the bonds of a Haitian community and the composition of Webb’s craft. And they equalise one another perfectly.

I don’t wish to be misunderstood, Magnum: In Motion is a phenomenal service to the global photographic community. I can’t imagine a world nor web without it. The archive is a treasure. I guess when I believe a slideshow has fallen short I want to state it as such. I only criticise because I care.


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