Unboxing ‘The Suffering of Light’

‘The Suffering of Light: thirty years of photographs’ presents a sort of timeline of Alex Webb’s work from 1979 to 2009, in all their hyper, headache-inducing, overly-crowded excellence. I picked it up after reading a brief interview with Webb, or a quote or something, that suggested he was particularly proud of this monograph, and when I first flipped through it, I guess I was in a negative mood, because all I saw was the great hunks of totally blocked up shadows, and it’s taken me months of looking randomly, and a two hour session of careful looking (and reading) to really come to grips with it.

To call Alex Web a street photographer would be a great disservice. He is a Street Photographer par excellence, but not just that: he’s a member of Magnum and a National Geographic photographer to boot, so he’s got some chops, for sure, and if I don’t “get it” that’s my fault.

But the black black blacks bugged me. They hypercolor bugged me. The labyrinthine compositions bugged me, and I had the full intention to just slam this book left and right.

If you’ve read my reviews, you know I rarely give less than 3 stars, and usually find something praise-worthy and/or inspiring (even if I make it up) about everything I review, so when I buy something that I end up despising, I usually sit on it awhile and try to digest before commenting. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, I’m excited by or interested in a book when I first look at it, but later find it boring or useless. Sometimes I look and look and never find anything nice to say. But I usually find something nice to say.

I’m not sure if this is good or bad. It’s probably not great… But this time, I succeeded in finding something good in the blackness.

It started slowly… It seems like Webb switched film stocks in the early-1990s and it took him a few rolls to figure out how to crush the blacks, as if he went from chrome to color negative or something. That’s what it looked like to me, anyway. Or maybe it was just the place, or the scene.

In a bar in Grenada in 1979, the color and blacks make me dizzy, almost nauseated.

But in Seville, in 1992, it all makes sense, it works.

Of course, the blacks are more dispersed here, the color less saturated and in your face.

But in Sanliurfa, in 1998, the black is back in force, but it works, it’s not sickly like the earlier work, though the color is also more muted, more Color Negative like (maybe?) than Chrome, so maybe that’s it.

But by this point, I’d seen some similarities to photographers I admire already, some of Webb’s rough contemporaries in Magnum (and the Geographic): Harry Gruyaert and David Alan Harvey. Webb’s work is sort of Harveyan composition meets Gruyartian color, if that makes sense.

Webb’s compositions cluttered to the point of bursting. There are frames within frames within frames within frames. The color is often searing, and the contrast so jarring that it could give some more sensitive viewers a migraine. But it works. It’s internally consistent and there from the first plate in 1979 (and even in the lone picture from 1978, way at the back of the book) to the last plate in 2010, and I bet it continues in Webb’s work even now, in the latter 20-teens.

As a retrospective-type monograph, The Suffering of Light is a great place to find the best-of, and a good-enough place to start for anyone wanting a closer look at Webb’s oeuvre, and though it is large and a bit spendy, the work inside deserves to be seen a bit larger: it’s really quite good. And Aperture’s design and layout, the part-cloth, part image-wrapped cover, and the quality of the paper and printing inside do the subject justice.

Concept
Content
Design

Overall, I’d give it a solid 4.3 stars.

Aperture is still printing up copies, so you can order a new one with ease. I found this one used, I think, for a bit cheaper, though it came in near perfect condition. If you’re interested in contemporary (or late-20th/early-21st century) Street Photography, The Suffering of Light: thirty years of photographs is an excellent addition to your library, and if, like me, your interest lies more in color, composition, form, then Webb’s work will give you something to chew on, for sure. It’s really a great book.

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