Wednesday, June 22, 2011

ALex Webb ; Thirty Years of Photographs at The Print Room Magnum

entrance to the magnum offices in Gee Street, London

Firstly, here is the blurb from Magnum about the exhibition ...

The Magnum Print Room is delighted to present a selection of key photographic works from the career of American photographer Alex Webb, in conjunction with his forthcoming book The Suffering of Light (Thames & Hudson, 2011).

The first comprehensive monograph charting Alex Webb’s acclaimed career, The Suffering of Light, is a beautifully printed catalogue of his most iconic colour photographs. Taken in the far corners of the earth, with Webb’s key works featuring alongside previously unpublished images, The Suffering of Light provides the most thorough examination to date of this modern master’s prolific, thirty-year career.
Recognized as a pioneer of American colour photography since the 1970s, Webb has consistently created photographs characterized by colour, shape and light. His work, with its richly layered and complex composition, touches on multiple genres, including street photography, photojournalism, and fine art, but as Webb claims, “to me it all is photography. You have to go out and explore the world with a camera.” Webb’s ability to distill gesture, colour and contrasting cultural tensions into single, beguiling frames results in evocative images that convey a sense of enigma, irony, and humour.
The exhibition at the Magnum Print Room encompasses twelve of Webb’s best known images. Spanning four decades, these editioned c-type prints are drawn from destinations as diverse as Cuba, Greece, Turkey and Haiti; the country which Webb credits as transforming both his humanity and photography. It was in Haiti that the vivid colour of the Caribbean first pervaded his photographs replacing the dull grey light of his early New England work, shot in black & white. Webb says of his Haitian experience; “I realized there was another emotional note that had to be reckoned with: the intense, vibrant colour of these worlds. Searing light and intense colour seemed somehow embedded in the cultures”. Works exemplifying this are Webb’s 1979 photograph of a bar in Grenada, the silhouetted figures backlight by the intense tricolor of red, yellow and green or his caged circus lion lit by an ethereal red light in Merida, Mexico (1983).
It is not just the intense colour of Webb’s work that is so instantly recognizable, but the density of his all-over compositions. Packed with information, each frame, creates a matrix of inter-relating gesture and form.
Images are available online at ...
It is significant that this exhibition is in the Print Room of Magnum rather than in a Gallery; this seems more in keeping with the nature of photography which is different to that of "art": "Vive La Difference!" assuming there still is one!?

The Print Room at Magnum London
copies of Alex's book are open at certain pages; one of the 12 prints can be seen at the end of the room


“The Suffering of Light” is a book recording thirty years of photography by Alex Webb; it is also currently an exhibition of 12 large prints at the Magnum Print room at Magnum London in Gee Street, a short walk from the Barbican. The prints are hung along one wall of the room with just one, that of a lion from Bombay, India in it’s cage, on another adjoining wall and another Mumbai photo facing it at the other end of the room. They are all for sale at £2,150 except for the first print (also the first print in the book) of “Mexicans arrested while trying to cross the border to the United States (San Yisdro, California USA 1979)” which is selling for £9,150, being from a limited edition that is almost sold out; this print is also considerably larger at 30 by 40 inches with all the others being 20 by 30 inches in size.

The title of the book is taken from a quote by Goethe “Colours are the deeds and suffering of light”. Alex started working in black and white producing documentary photos of New England and elsewhere in pretty much the manner of others such as Lee Friedlander and Charles Harbutt. It was after reading Graham Greene’s The Comedians which led him to make a three week visit to Haiti that he started to work seriously in colour and became one of the first photographers to do so.

“Not a typical documentary photographer or photojournalist, I’ve worked essentially as a street photographer, exploring the world with a camera, allowing the rhythm and the life of the street to guide and inform the work” writes Alex in the introduction to his book, “At times I feel the street can be a kind of bellwether, hinting at sociopolitical changes to come.” He further writes that he has “been consistently drawn to places of cultural and often political uncertainity.”

The first photo in the book after the frontespiece image of Mexicans at the border, is called Jumping and shows a man leaping for no apparent reason at a wall; his shadow shows clearly on the sunlit wall he is trying to scale. This is another image from the Mexican border and so one might assume that the man is trying to make some kind of escape. However, looking at the surroundings that consist of whitewashed buildings without another person to be seen, this does not seem to be the case. Perhaps the man thinks he is going to escape by such a leap which by the looks of it is failing anyway since he is far from the top of the wall that is part of a building rather than a boundary. The famous image of Cartier-Bresson’s man walking of a ladder into a puddle comes to the mind of one familiar with it; in these digital days of easy cloning, it seems unlikely that this image would have the same impact of futility and frustration that it did when first made.

One of his defining colour images, the third in the book, is from Grenada and shows a trio of almost silhouetted figures with blocks of red, green and yellow in the background that appear to be window coverings. A man is smoking a cigarette with his head cocked to one side while looking directly at the camera. This image is the second in the exhibition and was used to advertise it on the Magnum website.

The prints in the book are accompanied only by nearby captions giving the place and year the photo was made. What is actually going on in the photos can only be guessed at and yet it is obvious that something is going on; most of the scenes have an underlying tension. The seventh photograph in the series that does not appear in the exhibition, is from Mumbai; this is also used as the cover photo which does not however fill the cover but wraps around the book to continue on the back. A quote from Max Kozloff is printed on part of this photo and states that Webb’s photos have a “metaphysical heat, suggestive of energy under stress, a spring-loaded poise that might flash into action. The spectacle he creates is both delirious and deliberate.” The meaning is never clear.

Some images are printed on one page with the caption on the other page; sometimes the double spread contains images one both pages with the captions underneath. The links between these images may relate to subject matter or colour as in the two “red” images on pages 24 and 25.

On page 43, one comes across another image from the exhibition entitled “La Gonave, Etroits, Haiti 1986.”

On page 59, another image from the exhibition entitled “Saut d’Eau Haiti 1987”

On page 151, another image in the exhibition from Istanbul, Turkey 2011; a child with candy floss with green walls around him and an orange background behind in which two figures are walking … the child’s parents perhaps.

On page 173, there is a photograph from Mexico in 2007 that also contains a caption on the facing page; “Murder outside a bar”.

There is an Afterword by Geoff Dyer who states that Alex Webb’s photographs have been largely “presented in relation to geography or space.”

Webb describes his work as “a highly interpretative presentation of the world”

“The world is a complex place and there are great dangers when you start looking at everything in terms purely of black and white.”

Webb’s photographs are “complicated pictures of complicated situations. Increasingly complicated pictures …”

Dayanita Singh, the Indian photographer, took classes from Webb and describes his work as “migraine photographs.”

Dyer looks for associations in art for Webb’s work, mentioning Gaugin and also Van Gogh; literary associations are made with John Donne and the suggestion is that Webb makes “metaphysical photographs”.

Pico Iyer describes Webb as a “shadow sociologist”. Shadows often dark and impenetrable play an important part in Webb’s images.

A record of a “belief dependent reality.”

In Webb’s work, there is a blurring between photojournalism, documentary and art.

Ezra Pound’s definition of literature “News that stays new” might be applied to great documentary photography.

Webb often divides up his frame; some images are like triptychs! There is further multiplication.

There is a sense of claustrophobia but there are also doors that enter into a wider expanse.

Pictures within pictures!

Like Winogrand, Webb’s images have a kind of horizontal vertigo.

Many photographers contain representative images, virtual trademarks, in their work; this does not seem to be the case with Webb.

Webb is “trying to ask questions”.

No comments:

Post a Comment