ALEX WEBB La Calle, Photographs from Mexico
Aperture Gallery | September 8 – October 26, 2016
Comprising a total of forty-five medium-sized photographs, La Calle (The Street), presents highlights culled from more than forty trips that Alex Webb took through Mexico between 1975 and 2007. Webb’s hauntingly beautiful images, which are characterized by extremely dense, layered compositions; frames within frames; and the lyrical use of saturated colors; represent Mexico’s urban landscapes as vertiginous spaces of mysterious contrasts—between light and shadow, motion and stillness, joy and desperation. Documents of everyday life, they are deeply personal despite their public character. But by aestheticizing their subjects—and using representational strategies that suggest a kind of magical realism—these images deemphasize the social and political meanings of what they depict, raising questions about the ethics of documentary photography.
Matamoros, Tamaulipas (1978), the only black-and-white image in the show, is also the earliest. A shirtless boy stands in a graveyard bedecked with floral wreathes and leaning crosses, while two riders on a single horse, separated from the youth by a wire fence and a deteriorating wooden shack, canter in the background. Juxtaposing stasis with movement, the photograph looks back toward Webb’s roots in American social landscape photography—he cites the influence of Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Charles Harbutt, but we can also productively place his work in the lineage of Robert Frank, whose book, The Americans (1958), set the standard for many of the personal documentary practices to come. After this image, the show then unspools nearly three decades of color work shot on Kodachrome slide film with an unobtrusive Leica camera and wide-angle lens. Arranged neither chronologically nor geographically, the exhibition’s sequencing adds to the dreamlike character of the images, which capture different “decisive moments,” to use Henri Cartier-Bresson’s term, split seconds of existence in which the world briefly comes together into visually extraordinary configurations.
Nearly all of Webb’s photographs are inhabited, depicting anonymous individuals caught in evanescent relationships with one another, signage, objects, and the dusty, sunbaked environment. In Oaxaca, Oaxaca (1982), an old woman in a skirt, her back bowed by age, slowly navigates an empty street at dusk. Softened by motion blur, her lower body almost melts into the sidewalk and brick building that define the setting suffused with melancholy lilac light. Behind her, red and white hearts appear, pasted behind two barred windows; and an extinguished neon sign, announcing “Kindergarten Antonia Labastida,” clings to the wall above. Combining youth with old age, love with emptiness, the photograph evokes a journey that is traveled alone. Leon, Guanajuato (1987), on the other hand, centers around the shadowy face of a young boy, who peers through a ragged hole in a weathered cardboard box. Lying in the street, among two other prefabricated containers, his insubstantial fort clashes with the green wall of the building behind it, where a passerby has stopped, peering through its doorway with his back turned. Large jagged shadows, perhaps from drying clothing, obscure parts of the image, defining multiple planes of action. They emphasize the dialogue that Webb’s photograph constructs between inside and outside, safety and exposure, a gaze turned outward and a look directed back behind the frame.
Webb is a master of composition in three dimensions, with scenes playing out not only across the surfaces of his images, but also at multiple levels of depth. His use of color is likewise sophisticated, making full use of the rich hues produced by afternoon and evening light as well as fluorescent and neon lamps. Used compositionally to emphasize specific areas, Webb’s colors combine with other pictorial elements to provide balance, accent, or mood. Movement—with its ability to suggest a temporal (fourth) dimension—is also central to these images, with the photographer capturing his subjects as they pass in and out of the frame. He also blurs or freezes them in apparently impossible positions. A tiny passage in the middle ground of Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila (1979) shows a man dropping down from a roof, seemingly hand-in-hand with his shadow. In the background, a rooftop cross mirrors the tilt of this inky doppelgänger. A miraculous play of incidents in an otherwise serene landscape, they together suggest a dreamlike transfiguration of the commonplace of which only the photographer was aware.
Shadows are another key component of Webb’s formal repertoire. Discovered by his lens, they reveal figures positioned outside the frame, create uncanny doubles, produce disturbing scalar discrepancies, and cloak large areas of the images in black, rendering them more abstract and mysterious. In another arresting photograph, Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas (1996), the shadow of an arch frames the equally dark silhouettes of a father carrying his daughter in front of an Office of Vital Registration. Flanked in a sunlit foreground by a casually embracing couple on one side and an isolated man who covers his head on the other, they quietly anchor this emotionally charged episode: a study of the coexistence of different types of love and loneliness, made all the more poignant by the specter of the government records office that haunts the background.
In today’s hyper-politicized world, it might be easy to accuse Webb, who was raised in New England and educated at Harvard, of exploiting his Latin American subjects, photographing them for his own aesthetic ends. His images, after all, direct our attention away from the specific, often economically disadvantaged lives depicted in them toward the photographer’s own unique way of seeing the world and his masterful ability to capture more general metaphors and allegories that can be found within it. And without captions and context, as Walter Benjamin long ago reminded us, photographs remain “stuck in the approximate,” unable to name specific events or injustices; and as such they are incapable of serving a political function. Contemplation of this thought provoking show, however, suggests that this assessment is too simplistic, missing the important ways Webb’s photographs allow his subjects to speak. By overloading the frame, by adding so many figures, events, and incidents to his images, Webb grants these Mexican citizens an autonomy to be themselves. Because of the magical density of these works, no figure ever becomes a clear or univocal symbol or stereotype. Viewers can thus choose to draw their own conclusions, and we are left with a feeling of empathy, and the desire to learn more about the rich worlds Webb’s subjects experience.
MATTHEW BIRO is Professor in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Anselm Kiefer and the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1998), The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin (2009), and Anselm Kiefer (2013). His reviews of contemporary art, film, and photography have appeared in Artforum, Contemporary, Art Papers, and The New Art Examiner.