Saturday, 3 December 2016

A Tale of the City of a Hundred Names


Collecting photographic monographs by default is somewhat of a biased choice, I've been collecting certain works of photographer’s simply because of the aesthetic within the photographer’s photographs, what emotional or provocative content they contain or indeed what the narrative may entail to capture my attention, for example, if the narrative is one of a particular time and place i.e. the ground zero of 9/11 or the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. So, I ask myself these questions in order to come to a decision about how I want to be influenced as a photographer myself, what do I want from my photography, what do I want to give back if anything and, how do I want to influence others in return for the knowledge gained / shared? These are just a few thoughts I have when purchasing a photographer’s monograph. 

My earlier purchases have always been based on the photographer and his reputation as a photographer, think Robert Doisneau or Andre Kértész, I have always thought that my perception of documenting life in the city or its suburbs was a reflection of how it was done in mainland Europe, pre and post-world war two. Many a photographer of that period used analogue cameras that were robust but lightweight, and not too intimidating to the subject they were photographing. They moved with ease with a 35mm camera, that could easily frame its subject and thus capture an interpretation of the human condition. After all, that is the reason I purchased said photographic essays, not because of the way they were bound but, because of the human interest, I have in society on the whole. Having moved on from that influence of the monochrome photographs but, still referring to them every now and again for that particular aesthetic, I have a penchant for monochrome film…I moved on to another form of artistic endeavour, no not digital not quite yet, anyway but, that of colour. 

Alex Webb is a prolific photographer whose use of colour is outstanding for obvious reasons to those in the know, but also how the use of colour in his works seemingly takes on not just the aesthetic of the work, but, in some cases the very narrative of the work. So whilst scouring the many books some bookstalls have in the way of photographers think Koenig Books, London. I happened upon one of Alex Webb’s books none other than the work Istanbul: City of a Hundred Names with an essay by Orhan Pamuk, a recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. I skimmed a few paragraphs and thought yeah, this is interesting I’ll get this for my collection.  Once I opened up said book in the confines of my apartment, the sunlight peering in through the partially opened blinds and throwing up some sort of hazy atmospheric warmth within the space I was occupying, I settled down with a damn good mug of coffee and set about immersing myself within the context of Alex Webb and his tale of his adventures in Istanbul: The City of a Hundred Names. 
© Alex Webb

The Influence of Alex Webb

Istanbul a major city in Turkey that straddles both the Asian and European continents across the Bosphorus Strait, an old city which has embraced many empires and cultures throughout it's turbulent but diverse and culturally influential history. Perhaps this is what attracted Alex Webb to Istanbul, although he does speak of his influence in his work being that of borders and this is what is significant in his work, he is not just a colourist but, someone who utilises the same thematic throughout his work and, that being a country and its borders. Borders have long been of interest to a documentary photographer, the fractious nature of the subject a naturally occurring construct of division and of indifference towards your neighbouring country, or ‘other’. Ideally, a border is a point were subtle nuances of culture and sub-culture emerge and coexist in some pseudo-Utopian manner. Here then, is the very narrative that Webb strives to collate some form of integration between differing cultures at the very locale of the border. as they come together. Turkey is noted for its secular republic though Islam may have a majority, it is a country which has embraced both ancient and modern influences in its daily way of life. 

This is what I perceive as the appealing side of his documentary approach to his work, as we view the daily lives of the plethora of diversity in Istanbul from its Grand Bazaar hosting a labyrinth of glittering delights with beckoning sellers peddling anything that is both vibrant as it is colourful, from jewellery to spices to textiles and souvenirs. Much to see much to do, though if you’re here to shop you may miss a scene, so it is best to stay focused on those that are doing the bartering and shopping so that you can do the photographing of what is happening in this vibrant city. This is what Webb captures the mundane everyday existence of life in an incredible city, albeit he captures and represents its inhabitants and visitors with a hint of geometry, when I view the photographs, I can see the influence of one Henri Cartier-Bresson, it’s the structure of the photograph and how it is composed that makes me think this way, the sudden gesture of a man holding his hand to his chin as though stroking his beard or a woman carrying a child whilst the gaze of the child is transfixed with some other nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. 

They’re all there for us to see, and to imagine how the scene played out or what preceded the ‘event’ as it is, Alex Webb has most certainly built on what has gone before (see Hot Light Half-Made Worlds, The Suffering of Light among many others. There is also the homage to Turkish history and culture itself with several of his works containing some element of Istanbul’s heritage, all in all, I find his work fascinating, informative and definitely collectible. If this is what you’re seeking to influence your own photography or you’re looking to expand your collection of photographic essays then this is a worthy choice, of course a connoisseur would also perhaps have something which is even more obscure to many, for example, I have a copy of The Women of Molise by Frank Monaco, a photographer who visited his mother’s homeland of Molise, Italy to document his own heritage. It is by all accounts a wonderful photographic document which somehow relates to Alex Webb’s own experience of visiting Istanbul with his parents and falling in love with a country whose culture was different to his own. 


It is then an influential collection of photographs that depict a sense of familiarity in the style of the presentation and perhaps the emotional content and provocative manner in which the subjects present themselves, Webb focuses a lot as I mentioned earlier on juxtaposing his subjects with certain shapes or geometry, and pays homage to a host of colourists who has gone before, with just a subtle hint of subdued colour in low light, which I find very warming. If you have not seen the work of Alex Webb then this is a great place to start, however, I am prompted to inform you of Memory City which is a collaboration between him and his wife Rebecca Norris Webb, and is a study of Eastman Kodak and its uncertain future as a medium and is reflected in Rochester, New York, go seek it out.