Here’s an excerpt from Alex’s response today on Burn Magazine to a question raised by photographer Eric Espinosa. To read all the comments, visit:
ERIC ESPINOSA: In a way, Alex has been true to his vision all these years and I am a huge fan but maybe he would have preferred to take his vision into more different directions?
ALEX WEBB: The questions you raise about repetition and reinvention are complicated and difficult for any photographer or artist who has been working for some time. When does an obsession become stale? When is one repeating oneself without expanding one’s vision? In the early stages of one’s work, the changes are often more striking, more evident. As one works deeper into an obsession, as one hones one’s vision and one’s craft, the variations are often subtler. For me, some of the questions I’m grappling with are: Are my variations on my obsessions deepening and expanding my work? Or have I exhausted the tension, the vitality, and the power of these obsessions, so that the work no longer sings?
I sometimes look at other photographers and artists to see how they have grappled with this question. I think of photographers like Bruce Davidson, or Josef Koudelka, who have changed cameras and sometimes formats for different projects, clearly demarcating divisions between their bodies of work. Lee Friedlander, on the other hand, for years (until recently) never changed formats, but his projects seemed fairly unique, though clearly it was the same remarkable eye that created all the images. And Cartier-Bresson never changed his approach significantly for all those many years of working (though I do think there is a difference between the early, more formal and surrealist work — Italy, Spain, Mexico — and some of the the later work — India, China — which often seems to strike a more worldly, more socio-political note.) As I was originally a literature major, I also often think of writers and how they have dealt with obsessions. I sometimes feel with some of my favorite novelists that they have simply written the same book many times over. It’s only the superstructure that changes: the essential themes, the essential elements remain fairly consistent throughout. I also often wonder if we as photographers or artists have more than one or two serious obsessions in our life. Maybe it’s okay to have just one — if indeed it’s rich enough, complex enough, and expansive enough. In my case, I discovered a certain way of working in color in certain kinds of places and have expanded on that obsession for 30 some years. Is that enough??? Or does it simply reflect my limitations? Or are my limitations perhaps ultimately also my strength?I don’t know. So, these questions that you bring up are ones that bedevil me — especially now, after nearly 40 years of photography.
Though I think you are right that there are certain themes, motifs, tendencies that run throughout my color work, and that some of the notes — especially visual notes — struck in, say, Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds or Under A Grudging Sun, are also struck in my Cuba work, I think that there are emotional notes that I more consistently strike in Violet Isle that are distinct. It’s the same photographer, the same eye, but it’s a different place and it’s a different time in life. In my early work, I think I had a much greater need to directly confront the otherness of the world, to explore that tension, and, as in Under A Grudging Sun, to experience and photograph the violence of the world, specifically Haiti. The Cuba work is subtler, at times perhaps more lyrical, though often tinged with melancholy (a little bit like my Istanbul work). Yes, there are photographs in Violet Isle that could have been taken by the Alex Webb of 1986, but the Alex Webb of 1986 could not have produced the totality of this particular body of Cuba work.
Along the same lines, one of the things that appealed to me about the notion of doing a book with Rebecca was that it would be something new, a different kind of book. I have produced books on Haiti, the Amazon, Florida, the US-Mexico Border — did I just want to do another on Cuba? I found it very exciting to collaborate with Rebecca, to experiment, to try something different and new. Furthermore, there have been quite a few very good photography books about Cuba. Both of us liked the idea of producing this “duet” — a form that inevitably makes Violet Isle a unique kind of book on Cuba.
Ultimately, I don’t have any answers right now about the issues of artistic repetition and reinvention. After all, a certain level of repetition is not problematic; in fact, the very nature of obsession implies a certain level of repetition. Certain art forms — most notedly poetry and music — rely heavily on repetition (an obsession is “…a refrain, after all, playing itself again and again in the mind.” –– the poet, Katie Ford.) I’m not sure what’s next for my work. Usually I am working on several projects simultaneously, but not so right now (though I have some ideas.) So we’ll see. I don’t think you’ll see me on the corner with an 8×10 camera anytime soon. But you never know…