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Capturing the 'suffering of light' over 30 years

Alex Webb / Magnum

San Ysidro, California. 1979. Mexicans arrested while trying to cross the border to United States.

Magnum photographer Alex Webb took some time to talk to msnbc.com about his past work and current projects. Webb studied history and literature at Harvard University, and joined Magnum Photos in 1976. After briefly shooting in black-and-white, he is most known for his use of color and complex layering in his composition. The Aperture Gallery in NYC is exhibiting his photographs in conjunction with his latest book, The Suffering of Light, which covers 30 years of his work.

How would you describe your work compared to the traditional photojournalist?

My work touches on a number of different traditions. In Geoff Dyer’s piece in [The Suffering of Light], he said it really well:

Wherever he goes, Webb always ends up in a Bermuda shaped triangle where the distinctions between photojournalism, documentary and art blur and disappear. - Geoff Dyer

My approach is that of a street photographer, which is that I really approach the world out of a sense of curiosity, not out of any kind of conceptual framework. Let’s say the example of Haiti: I went to Haiti because I was intrigued. I read Graham Greene’s The Comedians, a novel set in Haiti, I read some articles in the New York Times and I was intrigued by what this place sounded like. I didn’t go to Haiti because I thought that I was going to show the poverty of Haiti or show something very specific about the political situation. In the process of wandering, those things emerge. Obviously, yes my pictures do show the poverty and at times they may show the political situation, but it comes out of the process of wandering, out of this sense of curiosity, out of this process of allowing my experiences with the camera to lead me where they will. And I think that’s just a slightly different emphasis from the traditional photojournalist, who goes off somewhere with the idea that they are going to photograph something, they have some notion a priori.

I think what makes me somewhat different of some street photographers of the past is that traditionally we have thought of street photography as being done in the two capitals of street photography: New York and Paris. Obviously, street photography has been done all over. But it has often been done more in the developed world. I’ve chosen generally to work in places where the situations are a little rawer politically. Places like Haiti, the U.S.-Mexican border, where there are evident and often disturbing social issues right there on the surface. I may be a street photographer, but I am interested in these issues, I do explore these issues, but I explore them from the point of view of a street photographer.

Alex Webb / Magnum

Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 1987. A memorial for victims of army violence.

Alex Webb / Magnum

Haiti, 1987. Saut D'eau pilgrimage.

I think a good example of your unique approach is the image you made on Sept. 11th.

I have to say part of that was serendipity in that I was where I was. If I lived in Manhattan, near the center, I would have been there. But I lived in Brooklyn and didn’t hear about anything until the second tower was falling. And I took that picture en route to Manhattan. I did try to get to Manhattan. I did get to Ground Zero eventually. But I do think that generally in situations of dramatic intensity, like Sept. 11th or the invasion of Haiti, I am open to other kinds of alternative pictures that are different. I’m not saying that is consciously; that’s just the way I am. That was a picture I was open to. Likewise, there’s a picture in the book of a bunch of kids in Haiti from 1994 against a wall that looks like it has targets on it, they have a [shirt] over their head that is being blown away by dust. It is dust is from U.S. military helicopters, and that was taken during the invasion of Haiti. I did take pictures of the military landing, but I often find myself turning the camera away, towards something else as well. This is my particular predilection.

Alex Webb / Magnum

New York City. September 11, 2001. View of Lower Manhattan from a Brooklyn Heights rooftop.

Alex Webb / Magnum

Gonaives, Haiti. 1994. U.S. invasion of Haiti.

Can you tell us a little about selecting the Goethe quote as the title of your book, “The Suffering of Light”?

Colors are the deeds and suffering of light – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

My understanding – of course, I’m not a philosopher or a scientist – of an aspect of Goethe’s theory of color is that he felt that color came out of tension between light and dark. I think that is very appropriate when you think about the kind of color that I shoot. Secondly, this is a complicated book and I didn’t want to call it “Alex Webb: 30 Years.” How do you come up with a title that somehow evokes something that is fairly consistent about this body of work of 30 years? I wanted a somewhat poetic title, but also a note of enigma because I think the pictures often have an enigmatic note to them, and when you read “the suffering of light” it is certainly an enigmatic title. Light. Suffering. What does that mean?

Alex Webb / Magnum

Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. 1993. Baseball fans.

Alex Webb / Magnum

Havana, Cuba. 2000. Children in a playground.

You are known as a color photographer and up until recently worked in Kodachrome. Now that the film and processing are no longer available, can you describe your transition away from film?

My last major project that was totally Kodachrome was Cuba. That seems appropriate since we always think of Cuba as caught in the world of the 50s or 60s, and Kodachrome is the film that we associate entirely with that era. I continued working in Kodachrome [after Cuba], but in 2009 there were two things: one is that it was being discontinued, but there was also pressure on me to learn digital if I was going to survive as a working photographer. So I have learned to work digitally. I have done it with some ambivalence. I don’t like the intangibility of digital. I don’t like the fact that you look at your desk and there are six hard drives and there are your pictures and you can’t touch them until you print them. Now, whenever I produce a take that I think is interesting or care about, I automatically make 5”x7” work prints and keep them around because I can relate much better to something that is tangible; that is an object that I can play around with. One part of me likes [digital] and thinks it’s just fantastic: you go back to the hotel room and you download the stuff onto hard drives and you can see it all that night, but to evaluate the work, it is actually too soon. I still have work from 2009/2010 that I did in digital that I am still trying to evaluate what the work really is. I need time to really get a sense of what I really feel about it and what it really means. I like the process of time that film gave one.

Alex Webb / Magnum

GRENADA. Gouyave. Bar. 1979.

Alex Webb / Magnum

Tenosique, Mexico. 2007. Murder scene -- the result of an argument in a nearby bar.

Is Mexico still an ongoing project for you? Has the increased violence and crime affected how your work there?

I have to say that Mexico in general is this project that hangs over my life, and has hung over my life for many years that I’ve never completed. If you look throughout this book, there are pictures of Mexico from the very beginning all the way through 2006. I haven’t resolved exactly how to complete a project on Mexico. Maybe it’s also that I’m not emotionally ready. It took me 26 years to be emotionally ready to let go of the [U.S.-Mexico] border. I’m not necessarily ready to let go of Mexico right now. Mexico has undergone significant changes since I started working there and I don’t know [how] my early work from Mexico – which is really quite lyrical and magic realist – how that would relate to if I did something now in certain parts of Mexico where clearly drug cartels have had a huge, huge impact and there’s a level of violence that didn’t exist when I was in Mexico many years ago.

Alex Webb / Magnum

USA. Palm Beach County, FL. 1988.

What projects are you currently working on? I thought it was really interesting that you chose to close the book with an image from the United States, given that most of your work has been outside of the country.

I recently spent some time in Chicago and did some interesting work there. I’m beginning to look a little bit more at America. I would like to spend some time poking around the United States a little bit and see what happens and see how it goes. I feel that I’ve been wandering the world for many, many years now and it’d be interesting to see what happens with having gone through all that, and having the experience of wandering the world behind me. Projects are mysterious and elusive, and I never know exactly why or when they’re going to work or not work. It is a little bit the way novelists talk about how they create their characters for their novels, and all of a sudden their characters take over and go somewhere they didn’t expect them to and I think that’s the case with my feelings about projects. You start, you work a little bit, and all of a sudden the pictures lead you to somewhere you didn’t realize they were going to lead you. That’s part of the excitement: the unknowability of where something is going to go.

I have to say, this book has taken a lot out of me this last year. Putting it together, figuring it out. That has taken up a lot of time. I’m not immersed intensively in a personal project the way I sometimes am, but I’ve been exploring doing some more work in the heartland of the United States. Not the U.S.-Mexico border, not south Florida, which are places that I’ve spent a lot of time in in the past. Instead, Ohio… the last picture in the book is from Erie, Penn. [My wife] Becky and I have been making some road trips across the country, ostensibly to get the car to South Dakota so she could work there, but we meander some and that picture from Erie was taken on one of those trips. Often I feel that towards the end of my book there’s a note of a suggestion of what’s to come.

Alex Webb / Magnum

USA. Erie, Pennsylvania. 2010.

Related links:

Alex Webb: The Suffering of Light - Thirty years of images is currently on view through January 19 at the Aperture Gallery in NYC.

For information about the book: The Suffering of Light

For more information visit: Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb's blog.

Museum of Fine Arts in Boston - Violet Isle: A photographic portrait of Cuba by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, on view through Jan. 16.