alex-webb-the-suffering-of-light

All photos copyrighted by Alex Webb / Magnum Photos. You can pick up a copy of “The Suffering of Light” on Amazon here.

After my month-long trip abroad in Stockholm, London, and Dubai I am finally (mostly) over my jet lag and have recovered at home. I’m sitting in my apartment and thinking to myself: what should I focus on for the blog?

I have thought about this a lot— and realized that 99% of the photography sites on the internet are gear-related. This includes news about the newest cameras, rumors about upcoming cameras, gear reviews, lens sharpness testing (taking photos of brick walls, and seeing how sharp the edges are).

Why are so many websites so gear-oriented?

TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. Ferry crossing the Bosporus.
TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. Ferry crossing the Bosporus.

Many reasons: first of all, many photography bloggers and websites (including myself) participate in “affiliate programs” in which we get a small percentage (usually 5%) of things bought through certain websites (like B&H, Amazon, etc). So as a photography blogger if I do a gear review for a $1300 camera (and somebody buys that camera through my link), I get $65. Assuming that I have 100 people buy the camera through my link that is a lot of money (~$6500).

Furthermore, the majority of the photography websites on the internet get a huge chunk of income through advertisements. And what are these ads for? Selling cameras— and there is big money in it.

I have been thinking of ways that I could earn a “sustainable income” while staying at home and traveling less— and focusing more on writing. I personally don’t like writing gear reviews (I only like to write about cameras that I am personally interested in and like), and there are tons of sites out there that do far better camera/gear reviews than I do.

However I think there is a huge absence of photography-book reviews on the internet. Personally before I plunk $50–80 dollars on a photography book, I like to see opinions by other photographers (if the book is any good). Unfortunately, there generally tends to be very few reviews for photography books on Amazon, and even fewer on the web.

So I think moving forward, I will try to focus on doing more photography books. I have a huge library of photography books that are just sitting there (that frankly speaking have only been read once or twice), that have tons of wisdom and insight in them. You can also see my list of recommended photography books here.

So I hope you enjoy these upcoming photography book reviews!

The Suffering of Light

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To continue— I want to do a photography book review of Alex Webb’s “The Suffering of Light”. If you are a street photographer interested or passionate about color— it is a must-own book.

The book itself is quite big, I need to sit down on a table with the book spread open to look at it (I measured the book to be around 3 of my hands tall and 3 of my hands wide). The upside of such a big book is that the photos are big. Really big. And printed beautifully, with great color reproduction (the colors pop out from the page), and tons of detail (you can “zoom” your face close to the page, and see small details in the background).

The book itself is a “best hits” of a sorts— it includes his 120 best photos of Alex Webb’s 30+ year career as a photographer. All the photos in the books have intense color— and the best photos in the books are interlaced with mystery, emotion, darkness, and hope.

Alex Webb’s style of photography is quite popular nowadays— in terms of creating very complex images. His photographs fill the frame, and are nearly on the edge of bursting. I think the best way to look at his photographs is not to start from the center of the frame— but to start at the edges. Webb is very meticulous about the edges of his frames in his photographs— and doesn’t leave any empty space.

By adding a lot of complexity to his images, there is always something more to look at.

For example, I haven’t looked at “The Suffering of Light” for about a year (it has just hung out in my library) and when I dusted it off and re-read it to do this article, I “re-discovered” a lot of images that I didn’t realize were in the book, noticed small details of certain photos that I didn’t notice before, and better appreciated the book and the photos (I have evolved as a photographer).

I think the great thing about photography books is that they are an investment that will stay with you forever. I also like re-reading old photography books and see them with new eyes. Because whenever I grow and evolve as a photographer, I can always look at a photography book with more appreciation.

Reading “The Suffering of Light”

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It is a bit difficult to read “The Suffering of Light” in one sitting. Each image is so complex and full of details, life, and intensity— that I had to personally put the book down after each quarter of the book, to take a breather, a sip of coffee (in order to re-energize my brain).

I think the book is a tad on the long side (the book has around 120 images) — I think it could have been fine with around 80 images (would make it a little less overwhelming to look at).

The book is also ordered mostly chronologically, and it is interesting to see Webb’s progress as a photographer through the years. In a lot of ways his work remains consistent and the same through the years (the fact that he stays consistent shooting (mostly) with his film Leica, 35mm lens, and Kodachrome. A few images in the end of the book are shot on his M9, and you can’t really tell too much of a difference (which is great for consistency’s sake). But you see certain images become more complex (and certain images be more “quiet” and simple).

Furthermore there are many pairings in the book, and most of the pairs in the book tend to be location-specific (the photos that are paired are both shot in the same area) or they tend to be color-specific (two photos on opposite sides of the page that are predominately the color red). But certain images that are paired almost create a panoramic of sorts— you can add the two images together to make one larger picture.

What I also love about “The Suffering of Light” is that you don’t really get bored with the book. There is enough content to entertain you, inspire you— especially on those rainy days when you don’t feel like shooting, or feel un-inspired.

Continuing, let me share some of Alex Webb’s philosophies (which he included in the book in the introduction):

The philosophy of Alex Webb on street photography

“Colors are the deeds and suffering of light.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

To start off, it is obvious that Alex Webb’s work is hugely colorful. The first quote in the book is the one above, from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe saying “Colors are the deeds and suffering of light.”

The quote is quite complex, and I don’t truly know the meaning or intent of Von Goethe. However this is how I interpret it: Colors aren’t just colors for color’s sake, colors (and light) are to show raw human emotions.

I think Webb succeeds in this regard. Many of Webb’s photos aren’t just complex, they have emotion— which are amplified by the colors in his photographs.

Let us continue with some of Alex Webb’s philosophies on street photography:

1. On the importance of walking as a street photographer

GERMANY. Munich. 1991.
GERMANY. Munich. 1991.

“I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner.” – Alex Webb

One of the ways that Webb discovers a new place is by walking. He has traveled to many different foreign countries, and it isn’t enough to just read tourist books — you need to embed yourself into a society by being on the pavement.

Alex Webb also mentions in the quote the importance of spontaneity and chance. You don’t know where the “unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known” is going to be. But every corner you walk around gives you the chance to explore and discover a new place.

I personally have found the same is for me— the more I walk, the more I discover, the more inspired I am, and the more I shoot. I find the biggest problem is when I am back home— I rarely walk. Like any good American, I drive everywhere. And while I do sometimes get out of the car and take photos— the only way to be truly inspired is to walk everywhere I go, take public transport, and have my camera around my neck.

Takeaway point:

A simple way to be more inspired with your photography is to walk more. During your lunch breaks at work, rather than just bringing in lunch from home and microwaving it and working at your desk, take a real “lunch break.” Purposefully choose a place to have lunch a bit further away from your office, take your camera, strap it around your neck (or wrist), and go for a walk. Take photos along the way.

When you are traveling abroad, don’t just go on a tour. Create your own tour. Get lost. Walk, a lot. The more you walk, the more chances you will increase to make great street photographs.

Try to add more walking into your diet— and you will discover more great street photography opportunities.

2. On discovering new territory

USA. Fort Pierce, FL. 1989.
USA. Fort Pierce, FL. 1989.

Alex Webb, like all the great street photographers out there, started in black and white (following the footsteps of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Charles Harbutt [who Webb took a workshop with]).

However after many years of shooting black and white, he realized that he wasn’t paving new ground— he didn’t feel like he was going anywhere new. Webb shares how he first hit his “dead end” in his photography:

In 1975, I reached a kind of dead end in my photography. I had been photographing in black and white, then my chosen medium, taking pictures of the American social landscape in New England and around New York— desolate parking lots inhabited by elusive human figures, lost-looking children strapped in car seats, and dogs slouching by on the street. The photographs were a little alienated, sometimes ironic, occasionally amusing, perhaps a bit surreal, and emotionally detached. Somehow I sensed that the work wasn’t taking me anywhere new. I seemed to be exploring territory that other photographers— such as Lee Friedlander and Charles Harbutt— had already discovered.

However the big turning point was when he picked up the novel, “The Comedians” — about the turbulent world of Haiti, jumped on a plane to Port-au-Prince, and discovered something new (color, which we will discuss more in the next section):

”I happened to pick up Graham Greene’s novel, “The Comedians”, a work set in the turbulent world of Papa Doc’s Haiti, and read about a world that fascinated and scared me. Within months, I was on a plane to Port-au-Prince.

Takeaway point:

Some of you might not know that Alex Webb studied at Harvard and majored in history and literature, while studying photography at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. You can see how his interest in literature (reading “The Comedians”) was his setting point to become inspired in a place that both “fascinated and scared” him.

I think it is important to follow your gut intuitions with your photography— and letting emotions be a guide is often a good bet.

I have heard that piece of advice from many other photographers— that it important to photograph things that fascinate (and scared) you. By harnessing this curiosity and raw emotion — we can dig deep and make powerful photographs.

So what place in the world has always interested you to photograph? Is it somewhere foreign, or somewhere close to home? What have you always wanted to photograph, but were too scared to pursue? Consider that as a starting point for your own personal transformations in photography.

3. On transforming into a color photographer

CUBA. Sancti Spiritus. 1993. Baseball fans.
CUBA. Sancti Spiritus. 1993. Baseball fans.

The majority of street photographers who start off mostly start off in black and white. Why? Because that is the tradition (look at the masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Robert Frank, etc).

However the reason that a lot of the masters shot in black and white was that color film didn’t exist, or the film speeds were too slow to capture “decisive moments.”

However when Alex Webb first went to Haiti— he discovered a brand new world with “emotional vibrancy and intensity” — and he felt that the “searing light and intense color seemed somehow embedded in the cultures that I had begun working in”.

Therefore he felt that the switch to color was an obvious choice— because he wanted to capture this part of the culture (that you couldn’t simply do in black and white). Webb explains more of his transformation into color:

“That first three-week trip to Haiti transformed me— both as a photographer and as a human being. I photographed a kind of world I had never experienced before, a world of emotional vibrancy and intensity: raw, disjointed, often tragic. I began to explore other places— in the Caribbean, along the U.S.-Mexico border— places, like Haiti, where life seemed to be lived on the stoop and in the street. Three years after my first trip to Haiti, I realized there was another emotional note that had to be reckoned with: the intense, vibrant color of these worlds. Searing light and intense color seemed somehow embedded in the cultures that I had begun working in, so utterly different than the gray-brown reticence of my New England background. Since then, I have worked predominantly in color.”

In another quote when Webb talked about photographing Mexico and Haiti, he said that those were places in “where color is somehow deeply part of the culture, on an almost spiritual level.”

Takeaway point:

I feel that for certain subject-matter, black and white or color generally tends to be more suitable.

For example, if you go to a place (let’s say India, Istanbul, or Cuba) where color is literally part of the culture— shooting in color might make more sense. If you photograph in a more grey, drab, and depressing place— perhaps black and white might be a better choice.

But of course this is a huge generalization— I have seen superb work come out of India, Istanbul, and Cuba in black and white, and great color work from traditionally “depressing” places such as Siberian Prisons (check out Carl De Keyzer’s “Zona”).

But what you want to ultimately do is follow your own curiosity and intuition. I personally think when you’re working on a project or photographing a certain place it is best to stay consistent (either shoot it all in black and white, or all in color).

Deciding what medium to use is a reflection of your mind-space. What medium do you think will best represent a place and express your creative vision?

There is no “right” or “wrong” — just follow your heart.

4. On street photography

TURKEY. Istanbul. 2004
TURKEY. Istanbul. 2004

Alex Webb is a part of Magnum, which has (historically) had its roots in documentary and photojournalism. A lot of photographers in Magnum do shoot “street photography”— but Alex Webb has made it his primary form of self-expression and exploration of different places and cultures.

Webb is almost like a “visual sociologist” — he discovers a place through walking and shooting street photography, but expresses his emotions of a place through the complexity and emotions of his images on a visual scale.

Webb shares this sentiment by sharing how he doesn’t work as a “typical documentary photographer or photojournalist” — and how he used street photography as a way to guide his work:

“[I’m] not a typical documentary photographer or photojournalist, I’ve worked essentially as a street photographer, exploring the world with the camera, allowing the rhythm and the life of the street to guide and inform the work. For me, everything comes, first and foremost, from the street. Whatever insights— sociopolitical, cultural, or aesthetic— I may have into the societies I have photographed over the years come not from preconception, but from the process of wandering the street. At times, I feel the street can sometimes be a kind of bellwether, hinting at sociopolitical changes to come.”

I feel it is a fascinating approach to gain insights (sociopolitical, cultural, aesthetic) through street photography (rather than just reading history books and guide-books).

Takeaway point:

I think whenever you travel to a foreign place, don’t read too much about a place in terms of the history, background, and place. Sometimes that can give you too many pre-conceived ideas, and skew your way of photographing and approaching a place.

A better approach is to go to a new place with an open-mind, without any prejudices, and to just walk, explore, and shoot. Through shooting on the streets, you can start making your own insights about the place, through the photos you make, the people you meet and interact with, and the places that you see.

5. On projects

TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. Outside of the Blue Mosque during Ramadan.
TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. Outside of the Blue Mosque during Ramadan.

Alex Webb has worked on many different projects over the years, in many different places.

What is the unifying thing that he is drawn to? They tend to be borders and edges— “where cultures merge, sometimes clashing, sometimes fusing.” He explains more:

“Over the years, my way of seeing in color, which first emerged in the tropics, has expanded into various projects, leading me not just to other parts of Latin America and to Africa, but also to Florida and to Istanbul. I have been consistently drawn to places of cultural and often political uncertainty— borders, islands, edges of societies— where cultures merge, sometimes clashing, sometimes fusing.”

Webb also shares that his projects often take a long time to complete (sometimes shorter) — and how there tends to also be a lot of overlapping aspects of his work:

Some of my projects have taken years to complete. Others have been briefer. Many have overlapped.”

Webb also shares the inspiration of putting together “The Suffering of Light”:

“Sequenced more or less chronologically, this book reflects the sometimes chaotic, sometimes mysterious process of creation, interweaving projects and obsessions, themes and passions, cultural tensions and offbeat moments, into one continuous chronicle of the street, from 1979 to the present.”

So how does Webb start his own journeys into his projects? He shares the importance of obsession:

“For me, each project and book seems to have its own unique journey. Each begins as a somewhat inexplicable obsession, and part of the challenge is discovering the individual nature of that particular obsession, including where it will lead me and how long the often-meandering trip will take. In the early ’80s, as my obsession with working in vibrant color on the street— in what I’d loosely call the tropics— deepened, I began to re-examine my photographs, working and reworking the sequences and juxtapositions, trying to make sense of what I was doing.”

But at the same time, Webb shares that it is important to be flexible when working on projects— and that what you set off to work on (isn’t often what it ends up to be):

“At first I thought I might be making a Caribbean book. When I looked at my photographs from the Caribbean next to those from Mexico and from parts of Africa, however, it dawned on me that despite the vast cultural and historical differences between these various places, the work evolved form the same obsession. The result was my first book, “Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds: Photographs from the Tropics”, a visual and atmospheric— rather than journalistic or historical— exploration of this obsession.”

Webb also states that when you work on projects, you will encounter work that remains unfinished (which is all part of the process):

“Mexico as a project remains unfinished. I continue to return there sporadically, most recently in 2007. How the project— if indeed it is a single project— evolves remains to be seen.”

Webb also shares instances in which he has pursued certain projects because the projects he was currently working on weren’t accessible. For example, he shares that when he was working on photographing Haiti, he was stuck and couldn’t go there to photograph due to travel restrictions because of the violence in Port-au-Prince. But this lead him to photograph America— specifically in Miami:

“During my frequent trips to Haiti I often found myself stuck in the Miami airport, waiting for the violence in Port-au-Prince to subside and Haiti’s airport to reopen. As a result, I began to look at the state of Florida. Initially I was drawn to some of the new immigrant groups, Guatemalans and Haitians. After all, I had spent the previous 10 years wandering the Caribbean and Latin America, where so often I would encounter the same wistful strain: the longing for that gleaming white city of Miami, the hope to partake in some version of the American dream.”

Webb continues by sharing how he wanted to capture all different cultural aspects of Miami (not just one specific vision of the new immigrants):

“However, I soon realized that I needed to photograph not just new immigrants, but the totality of this strange state: from amusement parks to old age homes, from migrant workers to sun worshippers, from the world of the Caribbean to the world of the American South. Eventually I published “From the Sunshine State: Photographs of Florida.”

But what do you do when you’re working on a project that is too “disjointed”— and that you travel to many different places, and the photographs don’t seem to make any sense together? Well, Webb took all of his images that didn’t seem to make any sense apart— and put them together, and put a limited-edition book called “Dislocations”— which was focused on images with psychological, cultural, and emotional dislocation:

“During the [late 90’s] I began to look back at some of my photographs that were not part of book projects, mostly pictures from the United States and Europe, especially Spain, where, thanks to a series of magazine assignments and artist commissions, I had been able to explore some of its major cities. A theme began to emerge, not linked by geography, or obvious socio-political concerns, but by something more elusive, a note of dislocation— a sense of psychological, cultural, and emotional dislocation, a sense that something is slightly askew. This series ultimately became the limited-edition artist book, “Dislocations.”

So where does the journeys of photography projects begin and end? Well— there is no end:

Most of my projects seem to start as exploratory journeys with no visible end in sight. A series of trips to the South Caucasus— like Istanbul, another border area between Europe and Asia— in 2009 and 2010 may evolve into a large project one day. A set of road trips with Rebecca in the United States may very well result in another collaboration.”

Takeaway point:

When working on projects, follow your muse. Realize that “the journey is the reward” — by working on a project, it gives you direction, focus, and purpose.

A lot of working on projects happen through serendipity. You aren’t exactly sure what direction your project is going to go— but by staying flexible, agile, and open-minded, you allow your project to change, evolve, and take you down a fun journey.

Don’t be too rigid when working on projects, and realize when it is important to ditch projects and when to move on.

But at the end of the day, you want to make your project personal to yourself. Do your projects for yourself first, and don’t make pleasing others your primary task. Then people will be able to see the passion, love, and intensity you put into your project, series, or book.

6. On looking for “more”

TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. Near Taksim Square on the anniversary of Ataturk's death.
TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. Near Taksim Square on the anniversary of Ataturk’s death.

Alex Webb isn’t easily satisfied with his images. He is constantly interested in borders, and pushing the limits of his photography. He has a lot of fun playing on the edge of chaos — and pushing his frames to the limits. He shares this process below:

“It’s not just that that and that exists. 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.”

Takeaway point:

Don’t become easily satisfied with your photography. Keep pushing your limits and pushing your boundaries. Know that there is a little more you can do with your photography.

If you are bored with your photos, perhaps they are too simple. Maybe you want to inject more complexity and chaos into your images. See if you can include more elements, more subjects, or more compositional elements into your frame. Like Alex Webb, play with your limits — and see how much you can teeter-totter on the edge of “chaos.”

I think the best way to stay alive and hungry as a photographer is to always push yourself and to make progress. Strive to make a little progress everyday as a photographer (by shooting, editing your projects, looking at photography books, by educating yourself)— and these investments will pay off huge dividends in the long run.

7. On making your photos open to interpretation

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NICARAGUA. Puerto Cabezas. 1992. Miskito children.

One thing I found fascinating about Alex Webb’s work is how he keeps them open to interpretation. He describes his photos as a “highly interpretive presentation of the world.”

I think that is what I enjoy most about Alex Webb’s photos— they aren’t easily interpreted, and they are open to interpretation to anybody. Everyone who looks at the photos can interpret the photo how he/she would like to. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer.

Takeaway point:

To make more interesting and engaging photos— don’t explain your photos to your subject. Don’t make them too simple and easily understandable. Make them mysterious— open-ended, and open to interpretation.

When you have a photo that is open-ended, it becomes much more interesting because the viewer becomes an active participant, rather than just a passive on-looker. The viewer makes his/her own stories of the photographs— and let their imaginations flourish. They become part of the image, and it becomes a much more personal experience for them.

So with your street photography— perhaps you can cut out certain limbs and parts of people to make the photos less obvious. Don’t show their faces, bodies, or key elements of the frame which “explain” a photo. Decide what to include and exclude from the frame. Perhaps see if you can put disparate elements of a scene into a frame which can be open-to-interpretation to the viewer. Is there a story to be told, and can that story be explained in different ways?

My favorite images from “The Suffering of Light”

Because this book is more of a “best hits” type of book (rather than a book purposefully edited and sequenced to suggest a certain narrative) I will focus on sharing some of my favorite photos of Alex Webb’s “The Suffering of Light” and sharing some of my thoughts and commentary on the images- why I love them, why I think they are great shots, and what we can learn from them:

Image #1: USA. San Ysidro, California. 1979. Mexicans arrested while trying to cross the border to United States.

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This is certainly one of my favorite photos by Alex Webb. It almost looks like it is from a dream. Without reading the caption– you are not 100% sure what is going on in the frame.

Upon closer inspection (after reading the caption), you know these are photos of Mexicans being arrested while trying to cross the border into America. The irony of the shot is that even though it is a sad moment (the Mexicans being arrested), it is also a beautiful image (golden yellow flowers, the beautiful sunset, and the amazing atmosphere).

I look at this image and think to myself: the risk these Mexicans (and many others around the world) make to try to find a better life for themselves. Perhaps the endless sea of yellow flowers can be a symbol as like the “yellow brick road” taking them to the promised land of “Oz” (America).

A surreal aspect of this image is also the fact that it looks like the man in the center looks like he is reaching out to grab the tail of the helicopter– perhaps trying to catch a ride to freedom.

Image #2: MEXICO. Boquillas (Border). 1979. Jumping.

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This is one of my favorites also from Alex Webb– I love the framing of the shot (the two pink pillars on the far left and far right of the frame, which create “bookends” to the photo), the “decisive moment” (boy jumping up like superman, and you can see his shadow), and the tiny little cross in the background of the frame (which is slanted).

The colors here are a great combination: the soft pastel pink against the blue sky.

Image #5: GRENADA. Gouyave. Bar. 1979.

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This image is a classic by Alex Webb– here you see the strong colors of green, yellow, and red all perfectly complementing one another. Then you have the man in the foreground smoking a cigarette, a little bit of smoke, and only one of his eyes lit up. He looks deep-in-thought, perhaps thinking of his own mortality.

Then you have the man in the background middle, who is leaning against a table, with his fingers in an interesting “V” gesture.  It looks quite surreal– as it looks like he is growing out of the man’s shoulder (in the foreground).

And then you have the man on the right side of the frame, hunched over, hang on his chin– having another conversation with the person next to him.

The image has a lot of great directions, the man in the foreground looking blankly towards ups, the man in the background looking to the bottom-right of the frame, and the man in the background looking to the right.

And of course the colors and soft light are what make the mood.

Image #9: USA. Texas. Dallas. 1981.

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This next image is also one of my favorites, where it looks like it was shot in a financial downtown district in Dallas, Texas. You have the man in the middle of the frame hunched over, hands on his face (perhaps he got fired that day or lost a lot of money), you then have the man on the far left of the frame in a tie, holding his briefcase, about to walk left. You have another guy in a suit in the middle of the frame (walking across the street), a person in the far background walking towards us, a man with red pants covering his face perhaps from the sun looking forwards us, and a guy in the far right of the frame walking out of the photo.

I think this photo works for two reasons:

1. Emotion

The photograph has strong emotion, told through the story of perhaps the man in the middle (he might work in finance in downtown Dallas, lost his job, lost a lot of money, or something else). The bleakness of the concrete jungle of the photograph is also quite depressing and feels oppressive.

2. Filling the frame + directions

In the classic “Alex Webb-style” he has filled the frame with lots of different subjects, all whom are spaced apart quite well in the frame, all moving in different directions. This gives the shot more energy, movement, and a “3D” effect (all the directions being pulled in different ways).

All the different directions the subjects in the frame are either facing (or walking towards)
All the different directions the subjects in the frame are either facing (or walking towards)

Image #10: USA. New York City. 1983. Coney Island.

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This next image in the frame is also a brilliant one (in terms of the pairing and sequencing with the previous image). You have a young man (or boy) face-planted into this crumpled up rug on the beach. He almost seems to be mimicking the gesture of trying to hide from the world with the other man.

Below you can see the images that are paired together in the book like so:

How the images are paired in the book. Note the similarities of gestures.
How the images are paired in the book. Note the similarities of gestures.

Image #13 (Merida. 1983. Circus lion.) + Image #14 (Kinshasha. 1982.)

Note how these two images are paired according to colors (red) and also the analogy of the cage
Note how these two images are paired according to colors (red) and also the analogy of the cage

The next spread in the book is of a circus lion on the left, with exotic reds– and you have a bunch of people squeezed in a cage-like bus on the right of the page (also with predominant reds).

Here you can see how by creating a strong pairing– you accentuate the meaning of both images.

The themes I see in these two images are about freedom, passion, being caged in, and trying to get out.

Image #19: MEXICO. Oaxaca state. Tehuantepec. 1985. Children playing in a courtyard.

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This is also one of Webb’s most iconic shots. There is just so much going on in this photo is it ridiculous.

Every edge of the frame is filled with the color blue– and there is a ton of action in the shot. In the bottom-left of the frame, you have what looks like an upset argument between two kids. On the far left of the frame, you have a basketball going through the hoop (great “decisive moment”), on the top of the frame, you have a kid covering his mouth and standing on a higher plane (who happens to be wearing a blue shirt), a kid in the bottom of the frame spinning a globe-like ball on his middle finger, and two kids in the far right of the frame with their hands on their hips and looking to the right.

It is a photograph that has a ton of depth– as you can see by the alternating sizes of the kids in the frame. Some are really close to Alex Webb, others are further away, there are little to no overlaps– and the nice pastel blue permeates the frame. One of my favorites.

Image #23: HAITI. Bombardopolis.1986.

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Another classic photograph by Alex Webb, with strong diagonals throughout the frame. You have the donkey ears pointing to the cigarette of the man’s cigarette, and also strong diagonal lines created by the shadows on top of the frame:

Note all the different directions in the frame
Note all the different directions in the frame

You can also see how many different elements he has in the frame, filling it, and not overlapping:

1x1.trans Street Photography Composition Lesson #13: Multiple Subjects
Many different elements in the frame perfectly spread out (and not overlapping)

There is so much action in the shot, with the mysterious kid in the middle of the frame, with the woman in the doorway exiting, the man on the far left looking over to the people on the right frame, the strong color of the woman’s red headscarf against his blue dress, and the man on the far right with his cigarette pointing into the frame.

This photograph doesn’t really have any deep sociological meaning in my opinion– but it is a visually complex and rich image which is a delight for the eyes. The sense of mystery also draws in the viewer.

Image #24: HAITI. Bombardopolis. 1986. School prayers.

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This is a much simpler image by Alex Webb (with it being just one layer, rather than multiple layers), but I think the strength of the emotions of this photograph makes it powerful.

You have all these kids in a classroom doing prayers, and you can see all the different expressions on the kids’ faces. The kid on the far left is mirroring the kid on the far right (both with their arms crossed in opposite directions, and hand covering their faces, the kid on the middle-left is crossing his arms and closing his eyes (reminds me of someone about to be laid into a casket), and the taller boy in the center has his arms crossed, and looks more powerful and strong.

You have beautiful light in the photograph, with a lovely sand-yellow wall, a table with some books and bags on it, and the pale orange-red of the kid’s uniforms. It is a very somber and almost religious-like image, with good separation of all the subjects in the frame, and an interesting Pyramid-like composition (with all the kids of differing heights):

Note how the composition is like a pyramid-- with the tallest kid in the center
Note how the composition is like a pyramid– with the tallest kid in the center

Image #31: HAITI. Port-au-Prince. 1987. A memorial for victims of army violence.

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This is also one of Webb’s most iconic shots– of a memorial of victims of army violence in Haiti. You see so much action, energy, and intensity throughout the frame, and you have a strong “Z” composition which leads you all around the frame:

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This is a great transitioning shot to the next image:

Image #32: HAITI. Port-au-Prince. Killed by the army. 1987.

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This image almost comes unexpectedly– a photo of a dead man in Haiti who was killed by the army. It is a very morbid photograph, with lots of cold tones of blues around the frame. The odd little spot of color is the pink in the bottom of the frame, which juxtaposes the blue throughout the frame. The man almost looks slouched over like a statue. It pains my heart so much to see images like this– but it is a nice break in terms of the sequence of images to show you the harsh reality of life in some places in the world (due to violence and political unrest).

Image #36: HAITI. 1987. Saut D’eau pilgrimage.

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One of the strongest elements of Alex Webb’s compositions is his use of depth in photographs. You generally will have figures in the extreme foreground of the frame (which are out-of-focus like on the bottom and middle-right of this photo), figures in the middle, and all the way into the background.

In this scene you see pilgrims bathing in the water, and the way he composed the image there is a lovely curve (arabesque) which flows through the frame:

Note how the curve of the photograph flows you through the image-- from the foreground to the background
Note how the curve of the photograph flows you through the image– from the foreground to the background

Image #44: USA. Miami, FL. 1987.

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This is one of Webb’s less-famous images, but I still think it has so much beauty. There are 4 different subjects in this frame, all who have interesting hand and body gestures (all at the same time). You have the kid int he background who has his legs crossed (but opposite of the girl in the center), the kid in the bottom-right who balances the kid in the top-right:

Note the great spacing of the subjects in the photo
Note the great spacing of the subjects in the photo

The only empty spot is the bottom-left of the frame (I wish it were filled), but I still think it is a brilliant shot.

Image #50: Asuncion. 1990.

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This is one of Webb’s surreal images– in which it looks like a Houdini trick: a man’s head is in the top-right of the frame, while you have his legs crossed in the bottom-left of the frame (separated by a sharp iron fence).

Of course we know that they are two separate people, but visually it creates surrealism and an interesting image. The man’s menacing look (with one eye illuminated through his hat) is also quite sinister– and adds emotion and drama to the image.

Image #76: 1996. Hot Rod Show.

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Skipping many images, I love this photograph that Webb shot with the strong crimson red filling the bottom of the frame, with the blue mural of the pyramids of Egypt in the background, with the man in the center framed in-between the open hood of the car as well as the two little mural figures in the background:

The two main subjects of the photo
The two main subjects of the photo

Of course I also love the juxtaposition of time in the image: the red-hot rods in the bottom of the frame, and the ancient Egyptian pyramids in the top of the frame.

Furthermore, I love all the strong diagonals in the image:

The strong diagonal composition of the image outlined in green
The strong diagonal composition of the image outlined in green

Image #79: 1997. Woman walking down street behind poster of hand.

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Here you have a photo of a woman (obviously tourist with super high-jean shorts and fanny pack) in Vegas. You see the Excalibur casino in the far left of the frame, and on the right of the frame you have this mysterious hand coming out nowhere (it almost looks like the hand of God– trying to reach out to this woman, who is obviously lost faith-wise being in Vegas, the city of sin).

Of course that isn’t the case, it is just an advertisement of a magician — and this is how I interpret the image. But it is compelling how Webb framed this image so precisely (having the woman smack dab in the center of the frame with the advertisement barely touching the side of her body). This is notoriously difficult to do with a Leica rangefinder (due to parallax error). But Webb nailed it.

But you can interpret this image however you’d like– what does a reaching-out arm mean to you?

Image #93 TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. Street scene in Ayvansaray.+ Image #94: TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. On board a ferry at dusk near the Princess Islands.

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This spread in the book we see two photos shot at dusk in Istanbul– on the left side you have a boy mysteriously looking at you (the viewer) in the center of the frame. On the right, you have a man sitting on the ferry, fingers crossed, in deep contemplation.

Both images have similar color hues (green, purple, yellow) and having the man on the right side of the page makes sense, as he is facing to the left. Here are the two images large:

TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. Street scene in Ayvansaray.

TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. On board a ferry at dusk near the Princess Islands.

So you can see once again how Webb paired these images because they were shot in the same city (Istanbul), how they have similar color hues, and similar somber and mysterious moods.

Image #95: TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. View from a barbershop near Taksim Square.

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One of Webb’s most famous images– the photo that took him apparently 10 rolls of Kodachrome film to capture. You can see how visually complex it is– you don’t know what is inside and what is outside. The shadows, reflections, and mirrors are all quite disorienting. And on top of that, you have the street action enclosed by all of these rectangles and squares.

Image #97: USA. New York City. September 11, 2001. View of Lower Manhattan from a Brooklyn Heights rooftop.

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This is an incredibly odd and puzzling image– you see this view of Manhattan engulfed in smoke after the September 11th terrorist attacks. In the foreground you have a woman trying to tend to her baby, whom both seem oblivious to everything which is going around.

For me the image shows resilience– of the young mother and her child surviving after the atrocity which happened on September 11th. It is also a strong juxtaposition visually because the woman int he baby in the foreground are quite well-lit, and vibrant– while you can see the burning smoke and doom in the background.

Image #111: MEXICO. Tenosique. 2007. Murder scene — the result of an argument in a nearby bar.

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This is definitely one of Webb’s most emotional shots– you see a man who just got murdered outside of a bar, and you have this woman on the far right (perhaps his wife or mother) mourning vigorously with her shaking arm, with a man on her right trying to comfort/restrain her. Then you have the couple on the top who are also weeping (while others are curious on-lookers).

The reason why I think this is such a powerful image is because it combines the drama of this terrible event with Alex Webb’s signature “fill-the-frame” aesthetic. It is a perfect marriage of content and form.

Image #119: USA. Erie, Pennsylvania. 2010.

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This is the last image in the book, and also a very hopeful image. You see two little children playing in a fountain, with a perfectly crescented rainbow falling into the center of the frame. You have a man in the background who is presumably their caretaker– with a nice triangular composition holding them all together:

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It is an image which gives me a lot of joy and hope, and is an apt image to end “The Suffering of Light”.

Conclusion

MEXICO. Ciudad Madero. 1983.
MEXICO. Ciudad Madero. 1983.

The Suffering of Light” is a must-own street photography book (especially if you are interested in colors). The colors in the book are printed vividly and brightly, and the way that Webb uses colors in his images really add to the depth and complexity of the scenes.

Webb has truly been a revolutionary for the genre of street photography– constantly pushing boundaries and limits through his work in color, creating depth, and filling his frames to the point of “chaotic destruction.” He tests these boundaries before they totally fall apart, and he succeeds.

Fortunately Aperture is still printing copies of “The Suffering of Light” (when they were out-of-print for a while, used copies went for $300+). So I would definitely pick up a copy while you can, and make an investment in your photography.

Study his images carefully. Look at the edges of the frame when you are looking at the images, appreciate how he uses color, how his images are mysterious and open-ended, and see how he creates depth and drama in his images. The book can’t really be appreciated in one sitting, or one viewing.

I’ve owned the book for a few years, and everytime I come back to it, I am still pleasantly surprised.

You can see more of Webb’s work on his Magnum Portfolio here.

Recommended books by Alex Webb

Here are the photography books by Alex Webb which I highly recommend:

  1. “The Suffering of Light” ($58). Don’t hesitate, and pick up a copy before you miss your chance. You can see all of the images here.
  2. Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on Street Photography and the Poetic Image: The Photography Workshop Series ($21). This is a book that is mostly educational, which includes their images, and words of inspiration.
  3. “Memory City” ($40). Alex Webb’s most recent book with Rebecca Norris Webb (his wife). It is an interesting collaboration project on the death of Kodak. Not my favorite book, but pick it up if you are an Alex Webb fan. See all the photos here.
  4. “Istanbul” ($175+ used). My (second favorite) photography book by Alex Webb (after “The Suffering of Light”). An incredible exploration of Istanbul and the city, a must-own book. You can see all the photos here.
  5. “From the Sunshine State” ($69+used). You can see all the images from the book here.

 Similar photographers to Alex Webb

If you like the work of Alex Webb, I recommend studying the photographers below:

  1. Constantine Manos (color layered work)
  2. Tony Ray Jones (layered work, in black and white)
  3. Saul Leiter (one of the master color photographers)
  4. Martin Parr (bright and vivid color imagery)
  5. Joel Meyerowitz (great colored layers, and color photography pioneer)
  6. David Alan Harvey (great layers and color imagery)
  7. Alec Soth (soulful color photographer and storyteller)

Street Photography Book Reviews

Below are some reviews I have done for my favorite photography books:

  1. Magnum Contact Sheets
  2. Dan Winters: Road to Seeing
  3. Alex Webb: The Suffering of Light
  4. Josef Koudelka: Gypsies
  5. Robert Frank: The Americans
  6. Martin Parr: The Last Resort
  7. Trent Parke: Minutes to Midnight
  8. Photographers’ Sketchbooks
  9. The Photobook: A History Volume III

My Top 10 Favorite Street Photography Books

If you currently don’t own any photography books and want to start your own library, below are my top-10 favorite street photography books (all still in print), as of 2014:

  1. Magnum Contact Sheets
  2. Dan Winters: Road to Seeing
  3. Alex Webb: The Suffering Of Light
  4. Robert Frank: The Americans
  5. Martin Parr: The Last Resort
  6. Trent Parke: Minutes to Midnight
  7. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment
  8. The Open Road: Photography and the American Roadtrip
  9. Photographers’ Sketchbooks
  10. The Photographer’s Playbook: 307 Assignments and Ideas”