I’m so glad that the world of photography has people like Alex Webb. Sure, he’s a Magnum photographer (whatever that even really means now that they have mutated into something different, I’m sure it’s still a bloody good thing though regardless) and it’s not hard to find jaw dropping photographic output and inspiration in that kind of company. Yet there’s something more than just excellent work in his portfolio. There’s just a mind numbing combination of tour de force art that inspires you to an almost drunken state before kicking you hard in the balls for even beginning to think you could achieve such work in your lifetime. It’s a familiar struggle for the all-aspiring artists of the world standing on the sidelines without any real flesh in the game. You want to be this good so very badly but you know deep down inside that this isn’t ever going to be a ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ issue. It hurts but yet feels so good that there are humans in the world who can somehow pull it off and at least offer you some outside semblance of hope that it can be done:
Look now if you will, but be warned of the double-edged sword that is exposure to an artist of this calibre. You’ll need more than a few last rolls of your favourite film stock and a five-minute appointment with your regular early Sunday morning muse to get on this tip. The man is depressingly good. I see the same world he sees, I see it every day, I live in it too. I even live in a pretty vibrant and exotic country with much photographic potential. I can have the same camera and lens or even a better one than he has in my hand. I can study and practice photography every single day for decades but I just cannot see, REPEAT AFTER ME, cannot see in the way that he sees. Start with ‘The Suffering of Light”. Look at every one of those shots. The one taken in 1979 in the room with the three different coloured panes of glass (red, yellow and green), which I would guess, is probably on Kodachrome. Are you kidding me? So simple, the best ideas usually are right? I never get bored of this shot. That’s perhaps one my favourite all time shots from the venerable Mr. Webb. What about the Mexicans arrested coming over the border with the helicopter in the background? Who sees that? Who puts a frame like that together? It’s just so surreal and utterly dreamlike and it’s hard to believe that it ever actually happened anywhere on planet Earth. This is soooo pre-photoshop people. Think how good you would have to be even now to do this, then imagine doing it in the 70’s with kit of the era and on film with no screen to chimp at.
His oft repeated motifs of eyes in patterns and strong harsh sunlight picking out hot primary colours in the golden hour for clearly delineated foreground/background interplay is all deceptively simple looking. The woman frozen backwards in mid air from the platform above the pool in Mexico. Such an often done freeze frame kind of pool dive shot but the way he has her, the smoke from the industrial chimney in the background, the colour palette to the piece, just so beautiful.
Another personal favourite of mine from this same series which really blows my mind is the shot from Haiti in 1987 with the truck blocked in the background by fires that protesters have lit. One of the protesters (or perhaps just a passer by on a BMX) is blurred and up close in the foreground but the background focus is on the top of the truck cab. It’s quite a famous shot of the era and I can’t imagine seeing and framing that on the fly, let alone making such a great and unusual choice in terms of focusing. It’s just such a genius frame, it really is. I love these guys like Webb and David Alan Harvey who can bring the colour back from the Caribbean and show it to us so warmly, I feel like I’m caught up in some kind of intoxicating spell when I see this work, as though it were cursed upon us and embedded into the roll of Kodachrome itself like a voodoo doll.
In ‘Under a Grudging Sun’ Webb really turns up the shadow play, especially of his human subjects. There’s an insanely good composition shot taken in Haiti in this series around 1987. It’s about an Army Day celebration. There’s a troop of soldiers marching away from us in the background and in the left hand side and the foreground we see a sharp right angle from a building and the almost completely underexposed yet clearly discernible outline of a flat cap middle-ranking officer right in front of the lens. The two shadows work together in a way which is just so right. I could have stood there all day and night and not ever seen an opportunity like that if there were a neon sign blinking ‘Alex Webb quality shot available right here’. It’s not just fortune and happenstance; you have to know when it’s happening before you. You have to know when to grab it by the balls and when to tickle it like a fish out of a river.
One hallmark of a true artist is often in being able to do something so difficult and present it to the world in such a way as to make it look easy, almost effortless. I think of Alex Webb’s work in such a context. He’s like Hemingway. Saying more with less and making you think that it’s something within your reach, until you try it for yourself and see, or rather you don’t. (Urban) legend has it that Ernest won a shortest story writing competition with a tale of just six words “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. After I look at Alex Webb’s work I feel I should pen the following story for the world: “ For sale, my eyes, never used”. Note to self, must try harder.