The Greats: How Alex Webb Found His Street Photography Style

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As a disciple of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, Alex Webb uses street photography to make sense of the world. Having made the transition from black-and-white to colour, and then film to digital, Webb’s evolving practice shows how the chaos of the street carries far more meaning than what’s seen on the surface.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Alex Webb

Standing out in a sea of street photographers is no easy feat, but Alex Webb’s instantly recognisable images have made him one of the modern-day greats. The American photographer’s journey started when he was 10 years old, learning the craft from his father, a publisher, who would pick up the camera when struck by writer’s block. However, Webb wasn’t particularly enamoured by photography – at least not right away. He chose to study English Literature because he felt novels could explain more about our complex world than photography.

As he delved into books by legendary writers like Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Gabriel García Márquez, their stories about places far removed from Webb’s New England upbringing opened his eyes to the world. He soon realised that photography offered the ideal way for him to make sense of life’s endless ambiguities. The beginnings of Webb’s career was devoted to black-and-white photography, developing his style by shooting desolate Boston car parks and strip malls, looking for ironic details in the scenery. However, by the mid-1970s, Webb felt that his work failed to have its own voice and he sought a new creative direction.

Shot by Alex Webb.

I take complex photographs because I experience the world as a very complicated and ultimately inexplicable place.”

The turning point for Webb was found in Graham Green’s The Comedians, a novel set in Haiti that details a brutal dictatorship set against a backdrop of tropical heat. This vivid tale inspired Webb to travel to the Caribbean nation. A few months later, he landed in the capital of Port-au-Prince, finding himself immersed in colours so vibrant they appear embedded in the cultural and spiritual fabric. Having never experienced this before, Webb was inspired to begin shooting in colour, feeling that it was the only way to accurately capture the emotion of these places.

Webb describes this change in his landmark photo book, The Suffering of Light: “The first three-week trip to Haiti transformed me – both as a photographer and a human being. I photographed a kind of world I had never experienced before, a world of emotional vibrancy and intensity: raw, disjointed, and often tragic.”

How Alex Webb Finds Meaning in the Streets

Webb frequently says 99 per cent of street photography is about failure. It’s an important lesson to learn as you consider his decades-long career. Although he spends almost every day wandering the street, the vast majority of his images never appear in an exhibition or glossy photo book. Yet, Webb’s ultimate goal is to be ready when these elusive and serendipitous moments take place in front of him. What makes him a special photographer is his capacity to not only recognise these events, but also his presence of mind to act quickly and press the shutter before they disappear.

Shot by Alex Webb.

“The rewards in photography are so fleeting, so unpredictable… that the only true fulfilment comes from creation.”

Webb’s talent is most noticeable in his ability to photograph an array of subjects within a single image. This multi-layered effect is perhaps the most defining attribute of his work, as he showcases chaotic scenes with incredible grace and balance. For instance, his acclaimed photo book, Istanbul: City of a Hundred Names, presents a place where ancient history constantly competes with modern realities, all within the same frame. In a 2013 interview, Webb explains his photographic philosophy: “I take complex photographs because I experience the world – particularly more and more as I get older – as a very complicated and ultimately inexplicable place. My experiences in the world, my travels as a photographer, lead me to believe that there are no simple solutions, no easy answers, just a lot of difficult and perhaps unanswerable questions.”

Webb views the street as a place where transformation happens. Whether that be social or political change, he believes the street has a way of signposting what lies ahead. This perspective helps him remain constantly curious as he seeks out places undergoing some kind of significant upheaval. For his landmark photo book, La Calle, he wanted to avoid having any preconceived ideas or generate an overarching narrative. Shot in Mexico between 1975 and 2007, he captures a series of deeply humane scenes that reveal subtly shifting cultural tensions. This kind of commitment to his subjects is also what makes Webb’s work so impressive, as he spends years adding to projects before he feels that he’s managed to capture the essence of a place.

As Webb says: “Take the pictures you believe in. The rewards in photography are so fleeting, so unpredictable, often so negligible, that the only true fulfilment comes from creation.”

How to Produce Street Photography Like Alex Webb

After you’ve finished browsing Alex Webb’s illuminating projects, draw some inspiration from his work and consider these tips to improve your own photography.

1. PUSH THE LIMITS OF COLOUR

Like many photographers of his era, Webb initially viewed colour photography as something for the commercial world. But once he experienced the radiant landscapes of Haiti and Havana, he quickly realised that colour was vital to capturing the spirit of these places. By working with intense and often contrasting colours, you can accurately capture the emotions behind a location.

Shot by Alex Webb.
2. DIRECT ATTENTION WITH SUNLIGHT

Alongside Webb’s masterful use of colour, his understanding of light is also extraordinary. He often manages to frame his subjects in dark shadows, using available light and silhouettes to lead the viewer’s gaze towards a hint of irony or a look in someone’s eyes. Try using natural light and shadows to add more layers and complexity to your own photography.

Shot by Alex Webb.

“Rational understanding takes a back seat and the unconscious takes over.”

3. FIND BALANCE IN THE CHAOS

Part of what makes Webb’s work so special is his ability to pack so many incongruous elements into his frame. It takes a lot of practice to strike this kind of compositional perfection, but it helps if you work with scenes that have a clearly defined foreground, middle ground and background. To achieve this effect, Webb pushes elements beyond the borders of his frame, while also ensuring his main subjects don’t overlap.

Shot by Alex Webb.
4. TAKE YOUR TIME

Inspired by the legendary work of Henri Cartier-Bresson – another photographer renowned for his patience – Webb often spends hours in the same spot waiting for the right action to occur. If you find a location that has all the hallmarks of a great shot, be willing to hang out and just see what happens. If you camp out for the day or regularly return, the right action will take place eventually.

Shot by Alex Webb.
5. WALK & WALK SOME MORE

Webb often remarks that the world only provides photographers with a few rare opportunities to create incredible work. But it makes logical sense that if you spend more time on the streets, you’re bound to have more chances. For Webb’s famous image shot in Tehuantepec, Mexico, he aimlessly wandered into the plaza before seeing the perfect combination of colour, shape and action as the boy spun the ball on his finger. 

Reflecting on this image, Webb explained: “This kind of photography – wandering the streets, exploring the world with few preconceptions – is so much about immediacy, intuition and serendipity. Rational understanding takes a back seat and the unconscious takes over.”

Shot by Alex Webb.

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.

2020-06-17T06:21:47+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , , |