Alex Webb: La Calle, Photographs from Mexico, an exhibition at the Aperture Foundation, features a dynamic selection of the photographer’s images that capture the look of Mexican street life: a painted Christ sticking out among commercial posters; two pairs of red shoes in a desolate landscape; a little girl caught in motion as she jumps off a diving board. Curator Alfonso Morales has selected black-and-white and color photos taken by Webb over more than 30 years, from 1975 to 2007, in locales spreading from northern Mexico, directly on the United States border (Tijuana), to the southern tip of the country (Chiapas).
Tijuana and Chiapas have featured prominently in American news as sites of conflicts — Tijuana as a focal point of US border crossings and, more recently, as a city where drug violence has escalated; Chiapas as the home of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which since the early ’90s has been at war with the Mexican state, in support of indigenous land rights and anti-neoliberal policies. The sociopolitical climates of Tijuana and Chiapas might be assumed to be strikingly different, but Webb’s images do not capture conflicts specific to their locales. The photographs mostly show poverty, homelessness, pollution, and despair — desperate states that, though they may well be grounded in reality, seem both slightly stereotypical and a lost opportunity to explore political struggles specific to each region.
The greatest strength of Webb’s photos is their depiction of what seems like more than one scene at a time. For example, in a 1978 photo from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, a young boy stands in the foreground, looking towards the camera. Behind him we see a graveyard with freshly placed wreaths. Along the horizon, two small figures are riding a horse. The boy does not seem to be interacting with the graveyard or with the riders in motion. While it’s clear that the image is one shot, the distance between the figures and their seemingly unconnected actions evoke the sense of a false composite, a photomontage. In Webb’s color work, the bright colors add to this illusion, causing individual objects or mini-scenes to jump out from their surroundings.
Webb’s images suggest the compositeness of the public experience. Walking down the street, an observer could focus her field of vision on any number of small moments, while completely missing others. Webb’s talent is capturing multiple moments within a single frame, reminding viewers how frenetic the world is and how human focus might limit it.
Alex Webb: La Calle, Photographs from Mexico continues at the Aperture Foundation (547 W 27th Street, 4th floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 26.