For someone who says 99 percent of street photography is about failure, Alex Webb has had a notably successful career. From his early work in Haiti and along the United States-Mexico border, to recent projects in the United States Rust Belt, Mr. Webb, a memberof Magnum Photos, had produced a deep archive of images rich in color and complexity. James Estrin recently discussed with him how his work has evolved over the last four decades. Their interview has been edited.
Q.You’re known for making complex images that seem to other photographers as if they would be very difficult to compose. How do you work on the street? How much planning and forethought go into making your images?
A.I take complex photographs because I experience the world — particularly more and more as I get older — as a very complicated and ultimately inexplicable place. My experiences in the world, my travels as a photographer, lead me to believe that there are no simple solutions, no easy answers, just a lot of difficult and perhaps unanswerable questions.
My most basic process as a photographer is to wander, allowing the camera and my experiences to lead me where they will. I try to arrive initially in a situation, or a place, with as few rational preconceptions as possible. Of course, that is ultimately impossible; we all are conditioned by our culture, our education, our experiences — what makes us who we are. Nonetheless, I make an effort to be as open as possible to alternative possibilities, possibilities that may contradict what I rationally might expect.
The words “planning and forethought” imply a level of rationality. Instead, I sense the possibility of a picture. It might be a group of people, it might be the look of a corner, I can’t say what it might be until I see it. It’s all about having a feel for the street.
My photography at its purest is about response, about visual exploration, about discovery. On one level, if I knew what it was I wanted in advance, I’m not sure I would choose photography as a medium. Part of what excites me about photography is its very uncertainty, the fact that it is not just the photographer, but the vagaries of the world that result in the photograph. If I had a greater inkling of just what I wanted in advance, why not choose a medium where there is much greater imaginative control, like painting?