Alex Webb

Book Review Alex Webb: La Calle

© Alex Webb

After reaching a self-proclaimed ‘dead-end’ with photography in 1975, Alex Webb, who until then had been photographing the American social landscape, felt he was making work that had no resonance.

─── by Isabel O'Toole, November 5, 2020
  • Alex Webb found his attraction to Mexico growing, intrigued by the fact that it was so close to the US but so fundamentally different, and charted a new course. Inspired by the works of Graham Greene, he began a relationship with the country that would last decades and culminate in his masterwork: La Calle.

    Ciudad Madero, Tamaulipas, Mexico, 1983, Alex Webb
    Ciudad Madero, Tamaulipas, Mexico, 1983

    The photos collected in La Calle are so remarkably complex that one is immediately astounded by their existence. Initially shooting on black and white film, Webb soon discerned that a monochrome palette was inadequate to express the richness and vibrancy of the Mexican landscape.
    Realizing that here, life itself was more than black and white, Webb quickly embraced color.

    The result was hundreds of lush multi-layered images, shrouded in shadow and light, capturing the chaos of the street in a way that was almost staged, as though Webb himself was the director of a national play.

    Oaxaca, 1982
    Red light district, Comitan Mexico, 2007 © Alex Webb
    Red light district, Comitan Mexico, 2007
    Color Photography Cotton candy, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1990 by Alex Webb
    Cotton candy, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1990

    Trying to avoid preconceptions, he allowed his camera to lead him everywhere and anywhere. During his frequent visits to the country, he crossed the border to the US illegally with Mexican migrants numerous times in order to further understand their plight.

    Hence Webb’s vision of Mexico is clearly not that of a tourist in a foreign land but occupies a strange territory that blurs the lines between documentary and fiction. Truly immersing himself in the Mexican culture and masterfully capturing its surrealist essence, perhaps Webb gets closer to the true fibers of the country than any anthropologist could hope.

    Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1985
    Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, Mexico, 1979

    La Calle is a collection of 30 years of roaming through dizzying and chaotic streets, and Webb’s attempt to make order from the chaos. Flicking through the pages of the book is a different experience every time- new details always make themselves present, stacked foregrounds and backgrounds allow Webb to pack each image concisely with vitality; plot lines can be assumed and imagined throughout. Regardless of tone, each photograph complements Mexico‘s rich street life and culture in a way that no other photographer could achieve.

    Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, 1996
    Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, 1995
    Near Creel, Chihuahua, Mexico 1978

    “We come from a culture that in its roots comes out of Protestantism, capitalism and individualism… Mexico’s roots lie in Spanish Catholicism, the indigenous world and a communal culture. Mexican culture seems to embrace mystery.”

    – Alex Webb

    Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, 1978

    La Calle
    includes essays by the Mexican writers Guillermo Arriaga, Álvaro Enrigue, Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel, and Mónica de la Torre and ends with an excerpt by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, from “La Calle”:

    A long and silent street.
    I walk in blackness and I stumble and fall
    and rise, and I walk blind, my feet
    stepping on silent stones and dry leaves.

    La Calle is published by Aperture and available here

    All images © Alex Webb / Magnum Photos