Masters of photography: Alex Webb
American photographer Alex Webb is a worthy addition to our masters of photography series. Famed for his complex stills of life in countries with sultry climates, Webb is all about colour.
Alex Webb was born in San Francisco in 1952, six months later, his parents moved to New York, but it was Massachusetts where the family finally settled. Webb first became attracted to the camera in high school and though he studied literature and history at Harvard, he also simultaneously studied photography at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.
The earliest of Webb’s works to be noted was his 1976-77 black and white photo essay of an impoverished rural town in the Mississippi Delta. Mound Bayou was one of the autonomous communities founded in the late 1800s under the premise that African Americans needed segregation in order to be free.
It wasn’t until 1978 that Webb began photographing in colour, motivated by what he saw while working on projects in Mexico and the Caribbean. It was a decision that was as much to do with society as aesthetics, Webb himself has explained: “The world is a complex place and there are great dangers when you start looking at everything in terms purely of black and white.”
A trip to photograph the aftermath of the 1986 Haitian Revolution validated Webb’s abandonment of black and white photography; he became aware that he was constantly being drawn to the immediacy and energy of places where colour was an important part of the culture, not just an advertising tool.
Webb’s use of colour is associated with photojournalism and art, but his method is that of a street photographer. He walks, watches, talks and waits for his subject to make itself known. Although he’s interested in places where there are cultural and political tensions, his approach to photography is personal, he is not an activist.
Webb strives to give a complicated response to complicated situations, which led one critic to dub his work ‘migraine photographs’. He is fascinated by paradoxical coexistence, as seen in his photograph of Mexicans being arrested for trying to cross the US border. At the time they were stood in a serene field of flowers, with a brilliant blue sky as the backdrop.
The prestigious museums that have exhibited Webb’s work include: the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Photographic Arts and the International Center of Photography. He has also earned a number of awards during his career, among them are: the Leopold Godowsky Color Photography Award (1988), the Leica Medal of Excellence (2000) and the David Octavius Hill Award (2002).
Webb has published seven photography books to detail his journeys into the colourful, complex worlds that enthral and inspire him. His latest was a limited edition entitled Dislocations and Istanbul: City of a Hundred Names.