Monday, 16 May 2011
Alex Webb: More is more
Alex Webb's images have been called 'migraine photographs'. Geoff Dyer on the art of taking complicated pictures of complicated situations
The Guardian, Saturday 14 May 2011
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USA. San Ysidro, California, 1979. Mexicans arrested while trying to cross the border to United States. Photograph: © Alex Webb/Magnum
Alex Webb is addicted to testing the limit of the load-bearing ability of his pictures: "It's not just that that and that exist. It's that that, that, that and that all exist in the same frame. I'm always looking for something more. You take in too much; perhaps it becomes total chaos. I'm always playing along that line: adding something more, yet keeping it short of chaos." This was in 2003; since then, Webb has found ways of piling on still more "thats", particularly in his images from Istanbul and Cuba.
Starting out, Webb's influences were Cartier-Bresson, Frank, Winogrand and Friedlander, and when he first worked on the Mexico-US border in 1975 he dutifully photographed in black and white – even as the terrain cried out to be shot in colour. But after a trip to post-revolution Haiti in 1986, he felt compelled to take on a massive additional complication. Politically and morally, an appropriate aesthetic response was demanded. "The world is a complex place and there are great dangers when you start looking at everything in terms purely of black and white."
So you start looking at it in colour.
The result: complicated pictures of complicated situations. When writing about difficult pictures or music or poetry, it's important not to forget, deny, or disguise one's initial (or enduring) confusion or perplexity. The purpose of criticism is not to explain away one's reactions, but to articulate and preserve them – in the hope that doing so expresses a truth inherent in the work. So it's reassuring that I am not alone in finding some of these pictures exhausting to look at. Dayanita Singh, the Indian photographer who took classes taught by Webb at the International Centre of Photography in New York, describes them as "migraine photographs".
Colour photography had gained institutional acceptance with William Eggleston's show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1976. Webb was part of the second wave of American photographers working in colour. His essential contribution was to ask the simplest of questions: if you are interested in colour, doesn't it make sense to go where the colour is? In this regard, he was following the same logic as Van Gogh and Gauguin, in painting, when they decamped to the blazing yellows of Arles. Gauguin, of course, went further, to the tropics of Martinique and Polynesia. (I wonder, is Webb's photograph of pilgrims bathing in the waterfalls at Saut d'Eau in Haiti a kind of documentary composite of – and homage to – Gauguin's Tahitian masterpiece?)
Wherever he goes, Webb always ends up in a Bermuda triangle where the distinctions between photojournalism, documentary and art blur and disappear. Even in Haiti, when he is most obviously "a witness to history", he is forced to recognise "the pattern of my futile efforts at news photography… I had missed the February 'revolution' and the fall of Duvalier; now, in April, I arrived to calm…" The most newsworthy pictures are offset by others that suggest that what we are seeing is both old and news. Sometimes this temporal double standard exists within a single image. On one side of the picture is human time and violence; on the other, the animal time of the dog, sniffing around. His cities are palimpsests in which one world is constantly peeking into or giving way to another, through windows, doors, posters, fading layers of paint.
Webb has said of Mexico and Haiti that these are places "where colour is somehow deeply part of the culture, on an almost spiritual level". That's as may be, but his is a world where certain instruments and tools – a spirit level, for example – do not make sense (the Bermuda syndrome again). Within his pictures gravity is rarely more than optional. There are often people's feet dangling from the top of the frame, as if it's a branch they're perched on. Or else they're hanging midair, like cartoon characters in the blissfully oblivious seconds after they've walked off a cliff; or floating upside down and sideways, weightless as astronauts. One way or another, there's a lot of suspense in these pictures.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011