Acclaimed photographer Alex Webb writes exclusively for LightBox on the first comprehensive monograph of his work, The Suffering of Light.
The notion of this book began some years ago, when it was proposed as the catalogue for a mid-career survey show at a museum on the West Coast. At the time I was concentrating on the idea of the exhibition, and so I didn’t fully examine the idea. Furthermore, I tend to be less excited about survey books, than books that seem to spring out of immediate, singular obsessions. The exhibition on the West Coast never materialized. It was only years later that my wife and creative partner, the photographer Rebecca Norris Webb, and I began work with the images and to think seriously about what a book of 30 years of my work could be.
What finally got me most excited about it — besides the fact that some 30 to 40 percent of the images have not appeared in any of my previous books — is that I realized that it could be a way to explore the dominant obsession of my photographic life: a particular way of seeing in color. This book became a vehicle to follow the twists and turns of this obsession through the years, interweaving multiple projects — some completed, some partial forays — into a kind of whole. Doing a book is a way of trying to understand the nature of just what one has been doing as a photographer. This book became that kind of self-discovery. It has forced me to examine this obsession — an inexplicable, intuitive obsession — more closely, to try to make sense of it in terms of who I am, and where I come from. Since the book is organized chronologically, it has allowed me to explore how that obsession has shifted and changed. That doesn’t mean I fully understand it. I’m not sure most of us ever really understand the deepest roots of our obsessions.
The Discovery of Color
In the mid 1970’s, I began to be drawn towards places of cultural tension: borders, the edges of societies, worlds that have been transformed by an outside — often northern — culture. I was intrigued by the rawness, the tensions, and the emotional immediacy of the streets in these places. I was working in black and white then. But, by the late 1970’s, I realized there was another emotional note that had to be reckoned with: the intense, vibrant color and the searing light of these worlds, so different than the gray-brown reticence of my New England background. That moment — when I discovered color in the late 1970’s — is where this book begins.
Though visual artists — photographers as well as painters — have certainly influenced how I see, novels have also been a significant source of inspiration. (I majored in literature in college and once even considered writing fiction.) In fact, reading Graham Greene’s The Comedians — a book that fascinated and scared me — in part inspired my first trip to Haiti. And I suspect that my first book, Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds, which is a kind of journey — visual as well as metaphysical, from lightness to darkness, from the initially soothing tranquility of the tropics to something more profoundly disturbing — owes a debt to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Working in the Amazon and in Paraguay, I have often felt that I’ve stepped into the magic-realist worlds of Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, and Roa Bastos.
Over the past dozen years, I have worked with Rebecca — a poet as well as a photographer — on six books (three of mine, two of hers, and one a joint project.) Over this period– I’m sure her sensibility has influenced me, particularly my work from Cuba — the project we collaborated on — and Istanbul, later work that’s more emotionally complex and psychologically dense than my work as a younger photographer.
The title of the book comes from a Goethe quote: “Colors are the deeds and suffering of light.” This book is not about a place, or a specific subject, or even a theme. It is about a way of seeing in color. As I understand it, Goethe believed that colors emerged from the tension between lightness and darkness, a notion that has always intrigued me.
Finishing The Suffering of Light has left me feeling somewhat daunted and unsettled in my photographic life. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. Is this anxiety simply the feeling one always has after the completion of a book? Or is my work undergoing a more profound change? Recently, Rebecca and I have begun making road trips in the industrial heartland of the U.S., possibly for a second joint project. Is it time for me to take a closer look at my own country? Perhaps it is, but, as always, until I do the work, I just won’t know.
Alex Webb has published eight previous books, including Under a Grudging Sun and Crossings. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007 and his work has been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe, in museums including the Walker Art Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Webb is a member of Magnum Photos.
The Suffering of Light is published by Aperture.