Leica & Magnum: Photographs from the Streets of Chicago by Alex Webb

This photo essay, part of our collaboration with Magnum Photos, documents Alex Webb’s exploration of Chicago and the Loop. Inspired in part by one of his early influences, Ray Metzker’s “My Camera and I in the Loop,” he explores the streets of the US’s “Second City.” Though unlike the street photographers of the so-called Chicago School (Callahan, Metzger, Sturr, Sterling), Alex Webb has chosen to photograph the city’s multitudinous character in color. Having spent most of his 30 year long career shooting outside of the US, Alex Webb turns his lens to his home nation during this very important election year. We had the chance to pose some questions about his images and the city that inspired them.

Q: What was your goal with the photograph featuring an Obama t-shirt where the wearer’s face is in the shadows aside from the glaring lens of his sunglasses? It’s a very striking photograph that reminds me of a graphic novel with the sunglasses.

A: I did not have a goal in mind. In fact, I do not have goals in mind when I photograph. I respond to what I see before me. The creation of the image happens in a split second, before I am fully rationally conscious of what it is that I am photographing. The act is intuitive, instinctive and non-rational.

Q: I love the photograph of the girl on the bicycle — her colorful attire and bike pop out with how the light is cast and shadows in the rest of the photograph. When you mention cinematic close-ups, this seems to illustrate that. How did you approach capturing this cinematic feel with your street photography?

A: At certain days in the year a crisp, clear light pervades Chicago, enveloping the Loop in dramatic criss-crossing shafts of light. Capturing this sense of the Loop is no different than other street photography. It involves patience, anticipation, luck and persistence because, as we all know, the special images do not come easily; 99% of street photography, if not more, is about failure. It’s a bit like gambling — you try to get the odds in your favor, you work when the light is interesting, when there are intriguing things going on in the street and you keep hoping, against all odds, that something will work.

Q: The photograph featuring a painting of a man in a button down shirt with the passerby in the same blue button down and a statue of a man in a suit against a white marble backdrop is great. What message did you want to convey with this photograph? You mention cultural reflections and this seems to point out a corporate culture very different from the contrasts found near the Loop.

A: As I suggest above, I am not trying to convey messages. I take photographs to affirm reality, not explain reality and that reality often has a high level of ambiguity to it, which is subject to interpretation. So what one viewer discovers in a given image may be very different from what another viewer discovers. This particular photograph seems to suggest to you something about corporate culture, but another viewer might simply be amused by the similarity of be-suited figures and another viewer might find something else. I believe in photographs that have a level of ambiguity, images that work on suggestion, that ask questions rather than provide answers.

Q: From the Loop to street festivals — the rhythm seems to slow in the photographs of the festivals, but it also seems like you’re pointing out something else about Chicago. By taking a closer look into pockets of the cultural diversity found juxtaposed in the Loop, what were you hoping to capture?

A: I’m intrigued by the ethnic variety of Chicago, the simultaneous coexistence of many different cultures in what seems like a quintessentially American city. But then this poses the question of just what is quintessentially American these days. For the American city is an ever-changing entity. That’s part of what was exciting to me about photographing Chicago.

Q: Why did you choose to shoot this series in color?

A: Since 1979 I have worked predominantly in color. While I was initially inspired to work in color by my experiences in the tropics, I now respond to color everywhere. For me, right now, black and white just isn’t an option. I see in color and I feel in color, so I have to work in color. Also, working in color allows me to pay homage to some of my early photographic influences (one of the first series of photographs I remember seeing as a teenager was Ray Metzker’s “My Camera and I in the Loop” in an issue of Aperture magazine), who photographed Chicago in black and white.

Q: You posed the question, “Could a series of photographs from these urban streets begin to suggest a kind of state of the union for the U.S. today?” Is it a coincidence or purposefully chosen that you selected Obama’s hometown and campaign headquarters for this project?

A: There were a multitude of reasons why I chose Chicago, but one of them was that it is Obama’s hometown.

Q: There is one photo you took of a caballero on a white horse, which appears to be in stark contrast to what looks like a field growing around some old train tracks and the concrete wall behind him. Can you tell us more about what’s happening in this seemingly contradictory scene?

A: This picture was taken at a Mexican Independence Day celebration. I loved the notion of this most Mexican of celebrations taking place in this drab, run-down area of a North American city.

Q: I have often been told that Chicago is almost a hybrid of New York City and Boston. Do you agree and what do you think makes Chicago unique?

A: I’m not sure I agree that Chicago seems like a hybrid of Boston and New York. It is Midwestern, whereas the other two cities are distinctly Eastern. What I find particularly unique about Chicago is its architectural muscularity. Chicago’s particular ethnic mix is a key to the city’s uniqueness: a large Polish and Eastern European population, a historically powerful African-American community and one of the largest Mexican communities in the United States.

Q: What is your next big project?

A: Over the past 30 years, I’ve photographed extensively outside the United States. I want to see what happens if I return to photographing more in my own country. I have been making some trips around the US, sometimes accompanied by my wife and creative partner, the photographer Rebecca Norris Webb, with whom I created the book on Cuba, “Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba.” Though it is at this point very much in a state of infancy, we are exploring the notion of creating another joint project.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Alex’s work in his Magnum Photos portfolio and on his website, www.webbnorriswebb.com.

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29 comments

  • I’d like to know how the sound was recorded for this piece and what was the editing process like. To me it seems quite essential to the overall tone and some deliberate decisions were made as to pairing the audio to the images. Thanks in advance.

    • Leica Internet Team

      Some of the information regarding the audio in the piece can be found at the end credits. Unfortunately, we can’t speak to the editing process, but we’re glad you enjoyed it.

  • Alex Webb’s photographs transform every day simplicity into the ultimate in photographic complexity. I would love to see a new project or book based in the United States…I doubt anyone could do it better.

  • I never felt comfortable with color photography until I saw Alex Webb’s photos. And since, then I have been completely inspired. This photoessay gives me a window to a town I know nothing about except through the study of architecture and watching politics from afar. I also love the Q&A as it gave me an insight into the mind of AW. Thanks for sharing.

  • Alex Webb is an awesome shooter, but I hate to say it but there needs to be some levels or curves or something to beef up the contrast of the photos. It’s strange to see Webb’s previous film work and then this digital stuff. I’m all for straight photography but even digital photos need some help to bring out the best at times.

  • Most of these are pretty dull shots. Some post-processing might help, but I see more dramatic, character driven work by street photographers using iphones everyday. There are very few close ups, too much advertising, and not enough scene driven narrative. This is pedestrian work. To each their own I suppose.

  • There are some nice shots, but I tend to agree with the detractors regarding this man’s photography. And I don’t want to get into a trite conversation about the technical aspects of photography, because that doesn’t interest me, nor should it be the most important aspect for contemporary photographers. I just don’t feel that the goal set out by Alex Webb is executed well from a purely conceptual level. When doing a project that’s conceptually been done a million times over by other artists (street photography), some level of the photographic experience needs to stand above what others have done. This body of work fails miserably in that regard.

  • As a street photographer myself, i can tell you that it’s very challenging and much more difficult than most people realize. I like what Alex is doing with his images both in subject matter and lighting/composition. Walking all day long looking for something interesting to photograph is very difficult. So when he catches the light perfectly, it’s quite magical. In the same way Meyerowitz and diCorcia do. When the sun is just about to disappear and the only rays of light left are those long narrow shafts. Catching people wandering in and out of that is all about timing and split second decisions, as you only have about 30 minutes in which to work. If you don’t think it’s difficult, try it. I do agree that those shots are the more interesting images, and what he is probably more known for. And perhaps there is a bit of photoshop going on in terms of getting those darker areas to really go black. But I agree with what poster Alex said “the technical aspects should not be the most important aspect”… There in lies the argument, what determines a true photograph. If you really look at the work of HCB, Robert Frank or even Winogrand you’ll notice that technically their images were not always perfect – however, their subject matter alway was. Elliott Erwitt feels that any manipulation of an image is not true photography, yet he himself had a little to do with the timing of some of his most well known images. Does that make them any less authentic ? In the end, does any of it really matter ? Maybe we should just ask ourselves the basics question, do these images move me ? Does it need to be more complicated than that ? I like Alex’s work. Do I prefer some of his images more than others, yes. But in the end, knowing how difficult it is to walk the streets hoping to catch a few interesting frames, I think he did a pretty good job and can enjoy them simply based on that. I hope you can as well… Thoughts ?

  • This is still “webb style” pictures: Several seperated things come together at a selective monment. but there is a little pity: the color of M9 is still cannot beat Kodakchrome.

  • In short, this is an average sample of street photography. I must admit, I am quite shocked at the lack of strong images. This was not Webb’s assignment. In part, as a photographer, often shooting on the street, viewers should realize the level of inspiration and creative energy pouring forth is a drug that allows for stimulating work. Here, Webb is telling me, Chicago does not excite me. Readers, we are naturally high as a kite in Iraq, Russia, Kosovo, Mexico etc. Robert Frank created “The Americans” as a Swiss shooter. How does Leica not realize this assignment went flat? Makes me wonder more and more about what matters, the name, or the photography.

  • I love Webb’s work. The Suffering of Light is amazing. However I feel this new Chicago work is a bit lacking and accidental in feel. Aside from feeling technically bland, I feel also the timing is off and the compositions are busy, loose and random. Maybe this is an example of one of the problems with digital capture in that it portrays itself as a lazy medium and is sometimes hard to separate creatively working from the technological crutches and options. Just the preview setting alone interrupts the natural instinct and intuition that we as photographers need and use. When shooting with film, It may be days, weeks or months before you have an opportunity to see what is shot so you are more in the moment while shooting to assure a successful image. The process of thought and creativity involved in using a film based media cultivates desire and hunger to find additional images, take additional frames and basically work harder in the scene. Chicago also happens to be one of my most favorite cities to photograph within. http://www.minnichphoto.com/gallery/Chicago.

  • Far from vintage Webb. It wouldn’t be difficult to edit the presentation down to what would appear to be half a dozen or so genuinely strong photographs (the rest are mundane). I suspect that a lack of time to spend on the project was the main problem but it doesn’t seem like Webb had his heart in it much – almost as if he was doing just enough to fulfil Magnum’s obligation under the agreement with Leica.

  • I think that it is easy to find good photographic material in a big city like Chicago or NY all you have to do is either walk around or even just stand in a corner and you’ll get a lot of great photos of people in different light situations. fiveblocksaround.blogspot.com

  • I was waiting for something awe inspiring! He can see in color all he wants but he did ot deliver in the slightest. This falls far shot…Alex you need new vision! Break out the film dude!

  • Really ordinary. You have to do more than walk around pointing and shooting.

  • Clearly Alex Webb is most inspired when working outside the US. Many photographers do their best work in foreign places. It only makes sense–you see things and react most powerfully to life that is strange or different. The criticisms on here about the lack of contrast in his images is a very real issue I have noticed for film shooters who have recently switched to digital. A RAW file does not just automatically come out of the camera looking how a Kodachrome slide does on a light table! You very much DO need to apply contrast and saturation in post production. Also, the issues with digital capture and the lack of concentration compared to when shooting film when you have no ability to review images on the back of the camera is a very real as well.

    I was at this talk last June:

  • Magnum’s a name. But these pictures would have been unremarkable at last years’s London street photography festival.
    Of cause unlike Alex Webb’s classics, that we know.

    Which one of the big names from the great agency would have dared to send in 5 pictures as coming from Smith, Johnes or any other pseudonym?

  • The music from 2:30 (Stand By Me) is a singer at the Lake-Red L-station. I hear her/him singing the SAME SONG everyday – however, occasionally it’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

  • I am sorry to say, those are very lame shots. There is only one shot that is acceptable. It numbs me to think Magnum and Leica can lower their standard this low.

  • I agree with Paul, to be very honest, most of the photos are not impressive at all. Let us face the truth and stop saying lies.

  • This is, by far, the weakest work I’ve ever seen from Alex Webb. In fact, it’s just weak, period. I can believe he took these shots, we all take shots like this. I just can’t believe he let anyone else see them.

  • There are some attention-grabbing time limits in this article however
    I don’t know if I see all of them middle to heart.
    There’s some validity but I’ll take maintain opinion till I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we wish extra! Added to FeedBurner as effectively

  • You really make it seem so easy together with your presentation but I in finding this matter to be actually one thing which I believe I might by no means understand. It kind of feels too complicated and very extensive for me. I am looking forward for your subsequent publish, I will attempt to get the hold of it!

  • I don’t even understand how I stopped up right here, however I assumed this put up was once great. I do not understand who you’re however definitely you are going to a well-known blogger if you happen to aren’t already. Cheers!

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