Interview by Anna Carnick
Alex Webb, self portrait in Hong Kong while on press for The Suffering of Light.
Aperture is pleased to introduce “SNAPSHOT,” a new series of interviews with photography’s luminaries, inspired by the Proust Questionnaire. For our series debut, we spoke with the always thoughtful, ever-surprising Alex Webb.
Webb’s latest photography collection, The Suffering of Light: Thirty Years of Photographs by Alex Webb, is available now through Aperture.
AC: How do you describe your personality?
AW: Obsessive, persistent––maybe even Sisyphean––but with a sense of humor.
What is your idea of happiness?
I suspect pure happiness is only attainable for brief periods. Creative fulfillment, however, seems like a more sustainable goal––taking the work one believes in to its ultimate end.
What do you believe is your greatest achievement as an artist so far?
If I’ve made some sort of contribution to photography––and that’s not for me to say––I think it’s about having discovered a way of working in intense color in the tropics with an eye towards the enigmatic, the unexpected, and the sometimes paradoxical.
I also think that Rebecca Norris Webb and I have made a small but unique contribution to the history of photographic collaborations with the Violet Isle project, a project which created a more complicated portrait of the island––and its people and animals––than either of our individual visions could have done alone.
If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?
Perhaps a novelist, though I am quite sure that I would have failed miserably at it. I think I need the immediacy of the experience of the world for inspiration. I think I do much better walking the streets and responding with a camera than staring at a blank sheet of paper in a room.
Who is your favorite artist, of any genre?
Blues is my favorite kind of music, and I love Buddy Guy’s music––though I think Stevie Ray Vaughn’s version of Little Wing is pretty special . . .
What is your favorite photograph?
I have a lot of favorite photographs, but I’ll mention one that has lingered in my mind for many years: Robert Frank’s picture of the back of a hearse-like vehicle in London. I love the open-ended questions that Frank’s photograph poses: Is that a hearse? Where exactly is that child in the fog running––and why?
The last book you really enjoyed?
I recently read Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise, a novel that interweaves the lives of Flora Tristan, a nineteenth century social activist, and her grandson, the painter Paul Gauguin. The depiction of the latter is particularly compelling.
Name a person—living or dead—you’d really like to meet.
I wouldn’t even know where to begin. . . . I suppose, if I spoke Russian, I would have liked to have met Tolstoy–especially on his estate.
What qualities do you appreciate most in friends?
I think probably a good-natured sense of humor, especially the ability to laugh at yourself.
Your favorite motto?
I love the following from the sculptor Henry Moore, from late in his life:
The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.
Anna Carnick is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Previously the editor of both Graphis Inc. and Clear Magazine, she has been an Aperture editor since 2010. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Style Magazine (The Moment), Photo District News (PDN), PopPhoto.com, Dazed & Confused, Casa Vogue, Dwell.com, Coolhunting.com, and others.