JTF (just the facts): A total of 52 color photographs, framed in blond wood and matted, and hung in the main gallery space. The digital c-prints come in two sizes: 20×30 (in editions of 20) and 30×40 (in editions of 12); there are 34 of the smaller size and 18 of the larger size on view. All of the images were taken between 1978 and 2010. The display also includes one long glass case containing seven of Webb’s monographs (both covers and spreads of each). A new monograph of this entire body of work was recently published by Aperture (here). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Alex Webb’s thirty year survey at Aperture isn’t so much a greatest hits or personal best kind of show, but instead more of a once-over sifting of a long and successful career with an eye for artistry in color and composition. Bringing together elements of social documentary and street photography, his images go beyond the color we think of as uniquely American (think Shore, Eggleston, and Sternfeld) and instead capture the brash vibrant hues of the warm weather tropics. From Haiti to Mexico and Grenada to Cuba, Webb finds moments where people and color come together in layered, complex ways, echoing and reverberating across carefully structured frames. His work has reminders of Cartier-Bresson for me, but with a conscious use of color (especially toasted and softened by late afternoon and early evening light) as a distinct and handy tool.
Political issues and social realities are never far from Webb’s glance, but even images with a clear narrative line are thrown off balance by saturated color. A Mexican border patrol raid takes place in a field of bright yellow flowers, shiny black coffins punctuate a Haitian rally, creamy almond colored water floods a town in Brazil, and school kids in orange gingham shirts stand against a glowing golden wall. Even more ephemeral and unknowable moments turn on seeing color as something quietly but undeniably spectacular: a circus lion in a saturated red cage, pink blobs of fluffy cotton candy against a pastel green truck, a gently purple Istanbul sky, or the jarring combination of a red headscarf and a blue dress on the drab streets of Haiti. Additional patterns and juxtaposed motifs add structure to his visual mix: seeing eye posters in a Bombay market, a welcoming red and yellow popcorn cart against the twilit night of seaside Greece, layers of geometric jungle gym bars in Cuba, and posters of Santa and Jesus with a crown of thorns put together with shapely legs in short shorts. Webb’s photographic style isn’t out front and obvious and has a surprisingly consistent lack of irony; instead, it sits behind the content with subtle but confident craftsmanship.
For me, the real excitement here was to get outside the intellectual ruts that surround American photographic color, and instead start to gather a sense for a broader, more inclusive international color. Sure, Webb is American, but his images connected me to photographers from Raghubir Singh to Martin Parr, and made me start to consider more fully how all these photographers fit together stylistically and in chronological time. My conclusion is that Webb is particularly adept at undermining the natural tendency to take a specific documentary point of view or opinion; his images shimmer with intense and complex photographic color, but they don’t necessarily force the viewer toward a defined end point or showy artistic flourish. Instead, they offer a more indeterminate experience of somewhere far away, alternately raw and unexpectedly visually refined.
Collector’s POV: While this venue is usually a non-selling environment, for this show, prices were actually available on the checklist. The 20×30 prints are $3500 and the 30×40 prints are $5000. Webb’s work has very little secondary market history, so gallery retail or purchase via Magnum are probably the best options for interested collectors.