American photographer Alex Webb was used to viewing the world in black-and-white. He was a rising star in his early 20s, but felt his career as a photographer was lacking motivation, and wanted a fresh start.
So in 1975, the New Englander traveled to the Mexican border to chase the images he had read about in books and articles.
“The first time I walked into Juárez, I realized this was a whole different world,” he said. “I was overwhelmed by the contrast between these two countries that sit side-by-side and are so interconnected yet so fundamentally different in so many ways.”
Webb adds, “There was something about the energy on the street; the sense of life on the street.”
It didn't take long for Webb to put down the black-and-white film and reach for color— then he took his first trip to the southern state of Oaxaca, a place that fed his newfound appetite for pigments.
"I felt something was missing. There was an intense color in Mexico.”
That energy and color is now on display in Webb's new book, recently published in Mexico, and in an exhibition in New York aptly titled La Calle (The Street). It's a body of work that captures more than 30 years of Mexican street life, spanning from 1975 to 2007.
“I always wanted to do a book on Mexico,” he said. “But I ended up getting involved in other places like Haiti and Florida."
In 2003 he published a book on the border, but kept most of his Mexican street photographs private until now.
“Sometimes you are not emotionally ready to put things out into the world and sometimes you are,” he explained. “I looked back at the work and realized I had been doing this for a long time. The work was different. The Mexico of today is well aware of the intensity of drug violence. There’s always been a slight dark side to my work, but it’s never been about beheadings or people hanging from bridges.”
Webb saw a stark contrast between his pictures of Mexico and images of the country published in the media.
“I thought it was time to bring the chapter on Mexico to a close. I thought that if I continued to work in Mexico my work would go on a slightly different note.”
But Mexico's light hasn't faded, Webb insists.
“The lyrical Mexico I responded to is still around.”
“I was recently in Mexico City and it’s the same way it has always been. Sure there are problems, but I think headlines get sensationalist. My experiences in the past in places of conflict is that yes there is conflict but life always manages to go around it.”
He says the Mexico he knows is full of “light, color, lyricism and mystery.”
“When I think of the United States, I think of a world of protestantism, capitalism, individualism and a can-do attitude,” he said. “It’s a tradition that doesn’t embrace a sense of mystery.”
The Aztec nation is different. Although the country is being transformed by the forces of globalization and foreign culture, Mexico manage to maintain its essence, Webb says.
“The roots of Mexican culture lie in Catholicism, indigenous culture, community, deep ties to the family,” Webb said.
“I come from New England, where the world happens mainly behind closed doors. But in Mexico it happens outside in the streets.”