Alex Webb describes his work as occupying “a kind of borderland” between documentary and fine-art photography. He built his career through an “emphasis on exploration and discovery with the camera,” by being out in the world and interpreting it in a way that engages viewers, whether they encounter his work in the pages of a magazine or book, or on the walls of gallery or museum. A Magnum Photos member, author or co-author of 16 books, and a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and National Endowment for the Arts Grant among other awards, Webb is quoted alongside Martha Cooper and Joel Meyerowitz in our story “Photographers on What ‘Street Photography’ Means to Them,” which appeared in our July issue. Below is our full email Q&A with Webb. It includes his description of how he works, and what he believes photographers learn by “walking in the world with one’s camera.”
PDN: How, generally, do you define street photography?
Alex Webb: I tend to avoid using the term “street photography,” because it seems to mean so many different things to different people. As Garry Winogrand—considered by many to be the quintessential street photographer—once said, “I hate the term, I think it’s a stupid term, street photography. I don’t think it tells you anything about the photographer or work. On the subject, I have a book out called The Animals. Call me the same I’m a zoo photographer. I mean it all really doesn’t make any sense to me, you know?”
When I reluctantly use the term “street photography,” I’m using it in the most fluid and expansive way. For me, it suggests an emphasis on exploration and discovery with the camera, with little preconception. A street photographer wanders and responds spontaneously to what he or she finds, rather than consciously searching for specific things, letting the world—and one’s unconscious—lead one where it will. This initial approach or attitude makes street photography different from more directed photojournalism, in which there is a conscious effort to find a “story”—and also makes street photography different from more conceptual photography, in which there is often a preconceived agenda.
Additionally, in general street photography tends to be conducted in public spaces or semi-public spaces, rather than in private places. For instance, my work tends to fall into the former category, public spaces, along with much of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lee Friedlander. On the other hand, my wife and creative partner Rebecca Norris Webb’s street photography—which Teju Cole describes as “the capture of private moods in semi-public spaces”—tends to fall in the latter category, along with some of the work of André Kertész and Saul Leiter, as well as Robert Frank’s indelible elevator girl in Miami, whom Jack Kerouac writes about in his introduction to The Americans.
PDN: Is it the practice—spending hours out walking and looking for pictures—that makes it street photography?
AW: Not necessarily. But the more time one spends walking in the world with one’s camera, the more likely one will be to find interesting photographs.
PDN: What’s the difference between street photography and documentary photography?
AW: Good question. Some consider street photography a subset of documentary photography; others consider it a subset of art photography. For me, my work seems to have a foot in both worlds, so perhaps street photography is a kind of borderland between the two.
PDN: Does street photography need to depict people at least some of the time?
AW: No, not at all. Just think of some of Robert Frank’s most memorable images—the South Carolina barbershop or the covered car in California—or most of Nathan Lyons’s work from his book, Notations in Passing.
PDN: Do street photographs have to be candid, or can photographers interact with their subjects?
AW: No, I think it depends on the photographer. Some photographers try to work fairly invisibly; others, often those with big personalities, may confront their subjects, so that the very act of confrontation becomes a vital element in the photograph; and others fall in between the two. I was once told that William Klein, while working on his New York book, would yell on the street, “Daily News! Daily News!” And people would look up startled at his camera. Ultimately, a photographer’s personality and sensibility—as well as how he or she interacts with others—all play a role in defining a photographer’s unique vision.
PDN: Does street photography require a loose framework (i.e. looking at a particular city or neighborhood) or can a body of work look at a more specific subject, (i.e. gentrification or public markets)?
AW: It’s more about the attitude and the approach. A body of work of street photography could simply be about the photographer’s unique sensibility or way of seeing, such as Cartier-Bresson’s Images a la Sauvette, loosely translated as “Pictures Taken on the Run,” whose original title seems to get at the heart of Cartier-Bresson’s attitude toward photography, as opposed to its English title, The Decisive Moment.
Ultimately, though I do understand some people’s need to define and categorize street photography, I’m not sure how useful such categories are in elucidating photographers’ practices. Is it, for example, helpful to brand Friedlander’s work from the streets of New York as street photography, and his photographs of the desert as something else? What about his New Mexico photographs or his car photographs or his landscapes? All these bodies of work share Friedlander’s unique way of seeing, which is as layered and complicated and confounding and, at times, contradictory as the world he is looking at through the lens of his camera.