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Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb

Violet Isle

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Q&A with DAH


(1) Both of you have heretofore been solo artists. What sacrifices did you make and/or what benefits are there to a collaboration?

AW: From my perspective, the sacrifices were not great. Early on working in Cuba, I envisioned doing my own book, but I also wanted to do something different  –– something unlike any of my past books, as well as something different from any of the many past photographic books on Cuba. When Rebecca and I hit upon the notion of combining our work, this resolved these concerns of mine. I also found it very exciting to weave our two distinct bodies of work together to create a different kind of portrait of the island. In fact, I am more excited about this book than any other book of mine since Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds, my first book, which came out in 1986.

RNW:  I was initially concerned that my fascination with Cuba was taking valuable time away from a project that I had always thought would be my second book, My Dakota, a project that had started out as an exploration of my relationship with the West––and specifically my home state of South Dakota––and ended up also becoming an elegy for my brother, Dave.  Now, I realize that bringing out the Cuba book before My Dakota was the right decision.  I needed more time and distance from my brother’s death to absorb and distill and let go of My Dakota.

And, David, you also asked about the benefits of doing Violet Isle with Alex….  Well, for one thing, it’s awfully nice having only half as many interview questions to answer.


(2) Is one of you stronger at editing than the other?

RNW:  Not stronger, just different from one another.


(3) Is the sequence a collaboration or is one of you the lead?

RNW: A collaboration in the truest sense of the word.  We like to think of it as a duet.


(4) Photographer style is always the mantra for today’s essayists.  How do you compare each other stylistically? How do you see your individual styles blending into one?

AW: This is somewhat of a generality, but, loosely speaking, my work often gravitates towards visual complexity, with multiple layers, paradoxical juxtapositions, and frames within frames.  Rebecca’s work tends to gravitate towards emotional complexity, with her work often striking different –– and sometimes contradictory –– emotional notes simultaneously, which creates a kind of emotional tension and complexity in her work akin to poetry.

We do not see our work blending into one. Instead, we see the book as interweaving our two distinct bodies of work together, much like a musical duet, with its point and counterpoint.  We like to say our Cuba photographs “speak” to each other, or, as Pico Iyer says in his afterword to the book, sometimes our photographs even “rhyme.”


(5) Is this your first and last book together, or is this the way you will work from now on??

RNW: Well, our first priority remains our own personal projects.  But we’re open to the possibility of future collaborations as well.  In fact, we have another collaboration in mind. We’ll see what happens…


(6) Are there any historic artistic references you point to regarding a husband and wife aesthetic collaboration??

RNW: We are certainly part of a tradition of collaborative husband-and-wife photographers.  Yet, one way we differ from, for example the Bechers, is that we have two very distinct visions, and our collaboration is solely in the editing process, not in the photographic process.


(7) Do you see this as a team effort designed for artistic purposes only, or is your lifestyle and marriage success a factor??

AW: This book collaboration came as a surprise to us.  Rebecca and I were working on two separate projects, which, only last year, developed into a joint project.  It seemed to happen organically  –– which is one reason why we think it works.  In retrospect, perhaps this shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, since we’ve been working together in other ways for some 10 years –– teaching, editing, and critiquing each other’s work.  According to Malcolm Gladwell, it often takes some 10,000 hours –– or three hours a day for a decade –– to hone an art, a sport, or other skill.  We’ve been working together –– as well as married –– for 10 years next month, a date that also happens to coincide with the publication of Violet Isle.



Alex Webb is best known for his vibrant and complex color work, especially from Latin America and the Caribbean.  He has published seven books, and his upcoming book, Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba (with photographer Rebecca Norris Webb), will be his eighth. Alex has exhibited at museums worldwide including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.  His work is in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, and the Guggenheim Museum, NY.  He became a full member of Magnum Photos in 1979.  Alex received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007 for continuing working in Cuba.

For the past decade, Rebecca Norris Webb has been exploring the complicated and vulnerable relationships that exist between people and the natural world. Originally a poet, she has shown her photographic work internationally, including at the George Eastman House Museum of Photography and Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York. Her first book, The Glass Between Us, was published in 2006, and her second book, Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs of Cuba (with photographer, Alex Webb), will be published in fall 2009 (Radius Books). Rebecca is currently working on a series in the American West called My Dakota.



portrait by a Cuban street photographer


“Violet Isle” is being released in November by Radius Books

There will be a book launch/exhibition of “Violet Isle” on Thursday, November 5th, 6-8pm, at Ricco Maresca Gallery, 529 W. 20th, 3d floor (between 10th and 11th  Ave.), NYC, as well as a gallery talk and book signing on Saturday, Nov. 7, from 4-6pm at the gallery.

Related links


Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb


Editor’s Note:

We will start a new series of presenting authors and their upcoming or just released books…this is the first…

Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

62 thoughts on “alex webb & rebecca norris webb – violet isle”

  1. I don’t really think that this essays ‘flows’ too well. The colour captured is adequate, but the subject matter (lots of birds!!!) didn’t do it for me.
    I wasn’t really sure what this essay wanted to say. Perhaps another viewing later might clear that up.

  2. it’s interesting that despite the work coming from 2 photographers, the photos compliment each other so well..
    i have no firm idea which photographer took which – apart from a guessing after the interview – and perhaps that is a result of a close and loving relationship between two people who compliment each other.

    one question regarding photographing together – i’m wondering if rebecca and alex work side by side easily, or if it becomes prohibitive to have another with a camera walking, standing and talking in the same circumstance.. do you photograph together or wander off in your own direction seeking subject matter, and only come together to edit?

    lovely work – thanks

  3. For me, the animals encountered in a country speak as loudly about the society as anything. The inclusion of them can only better our understanding of the people. There is a balance between these two sets that creates rounded vision, it’s like a visual wandering rather than the hard and fast tour.

  4. Liked it and would like to see more. I think there are differences so let me guess..

    1. RNW
    2. AW
    3. RNW
    4. AW
    5. RNW
    6. AW
    7. RNW
    8. AW
    9. AW
    10. RNW

    Just a guess and I might be totally off. As said by themselves I think the images rhyme even though there’s differences.

  5. I reckon it is great works as an essay for me as I am not beyond making stuff up in my head and the next image slots in seamlessly. It just a matter of jumping up and down and shouting in my haed”Hey just enjoy this”………..one can always do the thinking later

    The last image ……….sdfgjk;l’uyr434567

  6. It is unavoidable when I look at these photos to think about the photos in DAH’s books on Cuba. And I much prefer DAH’s easy use of color and composition to what appears to me far more contrived and structured in these photos. It’s not a criticism of the work. The use of color and form works well for the photos. But they look like the photos of photographers working to create art. DAH’s work has the good use of color and form, but the photos rarely look contrived, more as if he just happened on the scene (or was in the middle of the scene).

    Will have to check this book out at the bookstore, though, to decide if I want to buy it. Looks very interesting.

  7. There is a lovely blend to two sensibilities here. Poetic. I wonder what words will accompany the images in the book, if any? The rooster without feathers on his legs is very disturbing. Why would they do that to the poor thing? It’s grotesque. Why has someone painted the bird’s wing? Is it dead already? I am inclined to suspect not. Man’s relationship with animals is very difficult, troubling. I really like Alex’s compositions and the use of shadow.

  8. Superb!
    I knew Alex’s work, but never seen anything from Rebecca. I saw her My Dakota and it looks also amazing.
    This preview of the book denies what I have always thought about these kinds of collaboration.
    I am overwhelmed!

  9. Somebody wrote on a wall at the college I went to that “We learn more from admiring than criticising”. I think it can be true in SOME cases, and this is one of them. The photographs are simply singing to me with the colors being the tenors and the shapes the sopranos. The book is indeed wishlisted.

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  11. All I keep saying is WOW WOW WOW Fn Gorgeous (excuse my french). Alex Webbs book Amazon was actually one of the first books that influenced me greatly many years ago, and then somehow I moved on to other things, but seeing this new work once again truely beautiful and inspiring work and I look forward to seeing more of the work and also which photographs are Rebbecas and which are his. I also find the collaboration interesting as I have thought of working with my sister collaboratively as a photography duo, but could not imagine creatively how that would work. I also want to say it is a bit tiresome hearing about photography created as art as opposed to photojournalism, why does there have to de a distinction, it can be both or one or the other, it is all photography and it all has its place. Love the work! oh and Love Love the birds!

  12. I love this work! The fact that it is the collaboration of 2 photographers makes it more interesting as there are some pictures like 2,6,8 that are clearly Alex and some others like 7 and 10 that are clearly Rebecca but many of tham like n 1 (maybe my favourite) could be one or the other. Looking at previous works it looks like they have a totaly different style that will never fit together but in this case they managed to keep their own view but making it matching perfecly with the view of the other one.

    I am also interest in knowing if they separated themselfes during shooting time or did everything together…

  13. I can’t say nothing about this work, before I see the whole book. but yes, it promises. Unlike Martin Parr, Alex Webb brings us his personal way of viewing the world. Not just a cynical laugh, but an invitiation to see the complexity and the overall relations between things in a poetical way. Nobody else can make the flow of images in his books. It is Webb personal. Like Nachtwey is personal, or Frank or Koudelka…But everybody can make the images of Martin Parr. They are not personal. They contain the mask of personality. Which is narcissism. Which is superficiality. The sign of our times. And that’s why Parr’s work sells so good.

    Webb brings us another possible way of looking at the world. Parr only the same way we all know already over and over again, but he just adds his cleverness and british flegma to it. He only gives me indigestion, like shopping malls do.

    Webb gives me an opening, fresh space, CO2. He creates a world which is a complex interwinning of our world and his world. Parr only gives cynical copies of the world that eats too much hamburgers.

    Parr is junk food. Webb is rich, complex and sometimes delicious.

  14. red shorts
    in a tree,
    on a roof…
    …. violet…
    a song
    a dance…..
    I liked the rhythm of these images,
    the color,
    the thought….
    what a delicious treat this morning,,,
    and I simply adore the title…
    where did that come from?
    I still treasure my Hot Light/ Half-Made Worlds book…

  15. Frank Michael Hack

    Beautiful work. I had the honor of being present when Alex and Rebecca presented their work at David’s loft. Seeing their images in person with Rebecca reading her poetry as subtext and rhythm was a moving experience. I can’t wait to get the book. There definitely are differences between David’s vision of Cuba and Alex’s however I think they are both equally compelling in their own way. Same country but different worlds. As far as Martin Parr, I don’t believe anyone can capture his images. I would disagree with Kristoff on this. The reason some reject these his images is that he is holding up a mirror, a stylized reflection of what we have created in our modern western society. We don’t always look very good before we apply the thin veneer of lipstick and sophistication. Alex, Rebecca, and David’s images are of a world lost to us but captured in time due to modern political realities and the isolation of the sea.

    Bravo and Brava!!

  16. Yes, a duet. Definitely a duet. Each note distinct yet meeting in a way that enhances the unique quality and resonance of each. I loved seeing this slideshow at DAH’s loft last Friday night and am delighted to see ten of the images published here on Burn. I look forward to owning the book so I can join the dance.

    And specal thanks for participating in David’s interview. Your voices — whether photographic or written — compliment one another rather than blend together. You are very much your own persons and artists which is what makes this collaboration so strong. I’m delighted to hear that you already have ideas for a future duet in addition to your personal projects.


  17. Congratulations to both.
    As Patricia said, a wonderful duet where the images and styles complement.

    Unfortunately, we all now know what Martin Parr thinks about shooting in Cuba :>))

    After seeing this small set of images, methinks, Mr Parr, missed the boat.

  18. Lovely stuff.

    Comparisons with Parr are apples and oranges. Parr’s work is political commentary, provocative,uncomfortable, cynical, but whatever you think of it, it gives lots of food for thought.

    This work is food for the eye..eye candy if you will, visual entertainment and stimulation, the stuff of coffee table books. It is spectacularly done. It is all about color, graphics and composition. I don’t detect much in the way of a political statement about the human condition. The subject is secondary, even un-important.

    Cuba, exotic and colorful, is almost custom made for this kind of approach. Some people, including Parr it seems, view this approach as shallow and lazy. I think there is certainly room for both.

  19. I like the pictures and when I am less groggy than I am right now, I will look at them again and more closely. What I was immediately struck with was RNW’s statement about being distracted away from her Dakota book, which includes dealing with the death of her brother.

    I think she did good, to get one book done and another out. I’ve got a sort of Dakota book under way and a book dealing with the death of my brother, and about 20 or 30 other books, all of which are in various stages of incompletion, although some I have completed and then taken apart again. Some I have been working on, off and on, for 20 years or more, during which time I have managed to publish one book.

    So RNW got through the chaos of her mind, has one out and another coming. Congratulations to both Rebecca and Alex.



    you must have missed my comment under the Parr story about the fact that i originally met Martin Parr when HE was shooting in Cuba (i have never taken a picture in Walmart) …… i have been shooting at various times in Cuba with Martin, Alex and Rebecca…


    one of the things i always try to impart to young photographers is how their work should reflect their personalities….photographers should never try to be something they are not…Alex, Rebecca, and i all have different styles and , if you knew us individually, you would easily see how our work mirrors our respective personalities…all three of us fall into the “bearing witness” school, all three of us have our works in some of the same books, hang on some of the same museum walls, and are even collected by some of the same collectors….we all certainly “live it” , so differences in style and intent are well within the context of documentary regardless of where the photographs end up or are viewed….

    by the way, Alex was certainly photographing in Cuba long before yours truly…and there are no colorists whom i admire more…and , as i told him the other night in my loft, i think Alex’ relationship with Rebecca has sensitized him in a refreshing way….and, of course, i “high five” them both for maintaining a real relationship…..a congrats on the book and a happy anniversary is a nice duet indeed….

    cheers, david

  21. Alex and Rebecca,

    First, let me say congratulations on being shown here and on the book. Hopefully this series on Burn will jump-start the sales for you. I would love to hear some of the processes you went through to edit, organize and then find a publisher for the book. I think that could be a wonderful topic of discussion for many people here.

    Now on to the photos. Love them. Such brilliant colors with such subtle, understated moments like image #2 and 4. I wonder if the images would have the same impact is they were B&W, but then again, who cares? The colors so important here.

    Well done, and I wish you both success.

  22. love it…. HER pictures seem to send messages into world ( no, 10 ) while HIS pictures are more about composition…( my humble 1st impression). very inspiring collaboration.

  23. Dear Rebecca and Alex,

    I am big fan of Alex’s photography (also as a painter, this sense of coulour!!!) but I know and value beatiful and sensitive Rebecca’s works. I think you are a great team and this is very good idea to make a books together. Hope wi’ll see more books in like this one in future.

  24. David/ All-

    Well, what a pleasure to get home and see this essay from Alex and Rebecca. I have to say that I have been a real fan of Alex’s work for as long as I have been interested into photography. I have bought every books ever publised by Alex (with exception of dislocations that I am still looking for), sometimes I even own 2 copies in the case of my all time favourite ones : “Under a Grudging sun” and “Hot Lights Half-made worlds” so without any doubt… together with David, Alex has got to be my favourite photographer. The complexity, the multiple layers in his photographs have really captured my eye and imagination. I so often go back to his books and I am still so found of his work after all these years. My favourite work remains his early work in Haiti, even if I still very enjoyed the more recent work as well. One day (hopefully soon), I aspire to acquire one of his photographs that has been “haunting” me, the picture of this little girl in Haiti on Election day in Gonaives (p 63 of the Under the Grudging sun for those who have the book)…. I have always been deeply moved by this photograph…even got my wife who paints to do a painting from it…. Couple of years ago, after having enjoyed working alongside David, I actually got in touch with Rebecca as I was trying to get a workshop with them as well and Rebecca kindly directed me to one that was taking place in Mexico….I was so much looking forward to it and then, the week before it, huge crisis at work, absolutely no way of escaping and I could not go…Still regret this “forced” decision to this day but hopefully, I will have a chance to meet them face to face one day and possibly work along side the two of them.

    Regarding Island Violet, being a fan, I was very much waiting for it and I have to admit that I had mixed feeling to see the work of Alex blended with the work of another photographer even if the photographer is Rebecca… Not an easy task to mix two visions and make something coherent from it. Obvioulsy. I will get this book and I very much look forward to holding it and spending time going over the pictures. What you have shared with us David has certainly excited me to get it fast. In many ways, some of the pictures of Alex from Cuba remind me a lot of his initial work that I like so much. If I could ask a question to Alex it would have been whether he would actually like that comment or not. In a way, Alex has been true to his vision all these years and I am a huge fan but maybe he would have preferred to take his vision into more different directions. In a way, I have seen that some photographers over the years have tried to reinvent themselves… Could be true of you David with the “american families” project that you are working now that is very different from your Spanish/ Cuban work and also very different from your early black and white work… Should Alex have moved on more????….Not sure and I certainly would not complain myself nor ask this of him as I love what he is doing but I am curious what his peers would think on that topic…. Regarding Rebecca’s work, it is intriguing. Certainly adds this emotional note that is not always there is the more “intellectual” complex images of Alex…after all, although skeptic at first, it seems a rather interesting experiment to blend the two….

    In any case, time to go back and rewatch this essay. Thanks David for bringing this early preview of their book to us and pass on the best regards from a fan to them when you next see them…



  25. Not sure why Parr has to be judged against totally different photographers… Parr is saying, for ex. “We all eat junk food, it’s a valid subject”. Not merely junk food, but he shhots that: the fact that WE ALL eat junk food, literally and figuratively.

    That’s for the difference between him people who can take the same shots he does.

    I am glad I watched the pictures before I read (part of, rest later) the interview. Some of the shots do take on much of the symbolism in aviary and wing-spreading lore. As if RNW needed to escape a reality, and also sublimize that reality. The body goes, but love is immortal, all around us, capable of ever-regenerating. This symbolim inhabits our metaphors of birds and flying out, of different planes between earth and Heavens. Not That I guessed her recent loss, but something seemed there, in these pictures for me that I found out then when reading about her departed brother.

    Maybe, I am wrong. Hell, at least, it’s on the record! :-)))

    Alex’s is coming at the point that many great artists (photographers?) come to, at least in others eyes. We realize that he has been taking the same picture all his life! The worse critic that can be thrown at one of us emerging Ps during a DAH workshop, becomes, in Alex’s case, the ultimate compliment! :-)

    Both of you, in your own and dual ways, do indeed unleash the poetic from the jargon of a technique that has so often been attributed to Alex’s stance: exposing for the light….

    …..Most surely! ;-)

    Thank you for the beauty.

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  27. I’m a big fan of Mr. Webb’s work but hadn’t before been very familiar with RNW’s work.
    The preview of this book, to me, looks beautiful. While I’ve admired Mr. Webb’s ability to incorporate such visual complexity into his imagery I sometimes felt myself wanting to breath a bit more as I studied his work. Rebecca’s work seems to provide that relief and strikes a balance. Her work makes sure that this preview feels, overall, more sensitive. I hope the rest of this book feels like this preview.

    Thanks for letting us in on your process.

  28. eduardo sepulveda

    “you don’t have to speak
    i feel
    emotional landscapes
    they puzzle me

    then the riddle gets solved and you push me up to this:

    …state of emergency…
    …how beatuiful to be!…
    …state of emergency…
    …is where i want to be…”

    what could i say from my own?… maybe just that i believe you are not the photographers, you are the musicians…


    And many thanks to you David, thanks Burn, for this so expected play…

  29. Wonderful! I’ve always been a huge fan of Alex. Thanks for sharing this David… and of course Alex and Rebecca. 10 images just left me wanting more. I guess i’ll have to buy the book!

  30. Alex and Rebecca were in the midst of working on this book when I took a workshop with them (early 2008 was it?) At the time burn did not exist, only road trips.

    I spoke to them endlessly about road trips :))

    Now here they are being featured on burn, with a blog of their own and Violet Isle almost here…all great news!

    I run into their publisher Darius in Santa Fe and tell him how excited I am that he is publishing Violet Isle (for him as well as for them.) Can’t wait to get it.

  31. I, like Cathy, took a workshop with Alex and Rebecca back in 2005, I think it was. I spent a very enlightening week in the southern Spanish city of Cadiz listening to them present their work together and at the same time offer us advice. I distinctly remember one of Rebecca’s images having a deep impact on me. It was one of her zoo images and in it a young girl was reflected in a window, almost superimposed, onto a chimpanzee on the other side of the glass. It’s a wonderfully insightful picture, which I implore people to find if they haven’t seen it already. Like James and Sidney, I can’t wait to see more work from this book. Am a fan of both photographers.

  32. HERVE….

    you lost me on your comment….what is the worst critique that can come from me??? certainly not maintaining a look or a style ….not in a lifetime, not in class….i think something here is lost in translation…

  33. From Alex Webb:

    First of all, we want to thank David Alan Harvey for putting up this selection of photographs from Violet Isle. David is doing a remarkable job of bringing together a community of photographers. And thank you all for your questions. Here are a few of my answers/comments. Rebecca’s comments will come within the next day or two.

    For David Bowen and Albertina

    Consistently people seem to want to know if we photograph together — and especially on this project. The essential answer is no. Very, very occasionally, for some special event, we end up in the same place together. (We did photograph together on September 11, 2001. But that was more about a need to be together in confronting this catastrophe and all its implications.) In Cuba, we said goodbye to one another after breakfast, headed off in different directions, and reunited for dinner. For both of us, photography is a solitary business that demands that each of us be able to work according to our individual rhythms — and our rhythms are different. We realized early on that two of us working in a situation transforms the dynamic of the street — how people respond, how situations evolve — so we tend to avoid photographing together. Where we truly collaborate in a very direct way is in the editing process,. In the instance of the Cuba book, we worked together very hard in the editing and sequencing to create something that worked as one and yet respected the differences between our very different bodies of work. We built a kind of intuitive, musical structure: a “duet.”

    For Martin Brink

    You are absolutely right as to whose photographs are whose. Though this book is a collaboration, we still believe strongly in individual authorship, so in the book itself we include our initials with the captions. We wanted to create a single work, the book, that worked as a whole yet simultaneously embraced our differences.

    For Wendy

    Thank you for the first poetic response to this project.

    For Eric Espinosa

    The questions you raise about repetition and reinvention are complicated and difficult for any photographer or artist who has been working for some time. When does an obsession become stale? When is one repeating oneself without expanding one’s vision? In the early stages of one’s work, the changes are often more striking, more evident. As one works deeper into an obsession, as one hones one’s vision and one’s craft, the variations are often subtler. For me, some of the questions I’m grappling with are: Are my variations on my obsessions deepening and expanding my work? Or have I exhausted the tension, the vitality, and the power of these obsessions, so that the work no longer sings?

    I sometimes look at other photographers and artists to see how they have grappled with this question. I think of photographers like Bruce Davidson, or Josef Koudelka, who have changed cameras and sometimes formats for different projects, clearly demarcating divisions between their bodies of work. Lee Friedlander, on the other hand, for years (until recently) never changed formats, but his projects seemed fairly unique, though clearly it was the same remarkable eye that created all the images. And Cartier-Bresson never changed his approach significantly for all those many years of working (though I do think there is a difference between the early, more formal and surrealist work — Italy, Spain, Mexico — and some of the the later work — India, China — which often seems to strike a more worldly, more socio-political note.) As I was originally a literature major, I also often think of writers and how they have dealt with obsessions. I sometimes feel with some of my favorite novelists that they have simply written the same book many times over. It’s only the superstructure that changes: the essential themes, the essential elements remain fairly consistent throughout. I also often wonder if we as photographers or artists have more than one or two serious obsessions in our life. Maybe it’s okay to have just one — if indeed it’s rich enough, complex enough, and expansive enough. In my case, I discovered a certain way of working in color in certain kinds of places and have expanded on that obsession for 30 some years. Is that enough??? Or does it simply reflect my limitations? Or are my limitations perhaps ultimately also my strength?I don’t know. So, these questions that you bring up are ones that bedevil me — especially now, after nearly 40 years of photography.

    Though I think you are right that there are certain themes, motifs, tendencies that run throughout my color work, and that some of the notes — especially visual notes — struck in, say, Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds or Under A Grudging Sun, are also struck in my Cuba work, I think that there are emotional notes that I more consistently strike in Violet Isle that are distinct. It’s the same photographer, the same eye, but it’s a different place and it’s a different time in life. In my early work, I think I had a much greater need to directly confront the otherness of the world, to explore that tension, and, as in Under A Grudging Sun, to experience and photograph the violence of the world, specifically Haiti. The Cuba work is subtler, at times perhaps more lyrical, though often tinged with melancholy (a little bit like my Istanbul work). Yes, there are photographs in Violet Isle that could have been taken by the Alex Webb of 1986, but the Alex Webb of 1986 could not have produced the totality of this particular body of Cuba work.

    Along the same lines, one of the things that appealed to me about the notion of doing a book with Rebecca was that it would be something new, a different kind of book. I have produced books on Haiti, the Amazon, Florida, the US-Mexico Border — did I just want to do another on Cuba? I found it very exciting to collaborate with Rebecca, to experiment, to try something different and new. Furthermore, there have been quite a few very good photography books about Cuba. Both of us liked the idea of producing this “duet” — a form that inevitably makes Violet Isle a unique kind of book on Cuba.

    Ultimately, I don’t have any answers right now about the issues of artistic repetition and reinvention. After all, a certain level of repetition is not problematic; in fact, the very nature of obsession implies a certain level of repetition. Certain art forms — most notedly poetry and music — rely heavily on repetition (an obsession is “…a refrain, after all, playing itself again and again in the mind.” –– the poet, Katie Ford.) I’m not sure what’s next for my work. Usually I am working on several projects simultaneously, but not so right now (though I have some ideas.) So we’ll see. I don’t think you’ll see me on the corner with an 8×10 camera anytime soon. But you never know….

  34. i think something here is lost in translation…

    I am sure you are the only one who found I was saying something detrimental, or against, or critical, or derisive, or personal, or with a mere hint, or even in the slightest pointed at anything that would cause you grief, or pause, David …

    Multiplying translation here, to make sure :-))))

    I could have written any WS, but mentionned you, because I thought of being as usual, congenial rather than general. Congenial, david. That’s the translation.

  35. Alex and Rebecca,

    It’s good to see your “duet” here on Burn and I’m really looking forward to seeing the book.

    One thing that always stood out in your workshops was how democratic your working relationship is: although you have different opinions on photography and editing, one voice was never stronger than the other, but instead worked in complimentary cohesion. From the work I’ve seen from Violet Isle so far, this has clearly carried over into the creation of this joint book, and if anything, you clearly have inspired each other to reach new heights within your distinct photographic voices, and at the same time created a special unique joint voice by bringing the work together.

    It was interesting to read Alex’s thoughts on “repetition and reinvention.” I think as Alex is saying, there are two paths that a photographer (or any other creative person) takes – either to move through one’s career trying new things for different projects (such as different camera formats, or colour or black and white), or to find that “obsession” quite early on in your work and continue to explore that endlessly through natural subtle changes taking place as the work adapts to each project. Obviously both are valid: it takes equal guts to stick to what you know and keep working it (regardless of criticisms for doing so), and to try something new knowing that it might just fail.

    I think only each individual photographer really knows which is the right path to personally follow.

    I have three questions for you:

    1. Alex: was there a specific moment or event during which your work in Cuba shifted from being Esperando to Violet Isle? Do you feel the work shifted in a slightly different direction by being a duet or is it just a continuation of the Cuba project as a whole?

    2. Both: when it really got down to the ruthless editing and sequencing of the book, where there any occasions when you found yourselves in disagreement? Considering Rebecca has edited Alex’s previous two books, did she get the final say on editing matters?

    3. Both: As you have already pointed out, this duet naturally suggests musical references. I remember talking with Alex once about the joys and usefulness of editing photographs while listening to music. It is something I feel is very important. Did you take that approach to this work, and if so what music had most influence on the edit?

    All the best,


  36. This is marvelous. has a “crave factor” that makes me come back to get a fix. over and over again. and again.
    Thank you Webbs !!!

  37. ALEX,

    I normally respect the “one comment” rule but this time, I really wanted to thank you for the depth and quality of your answer to my question on repetition and reinvention. In case this was not clear I do like your obsessions very much :):):):) and there is no doubt in my mind that your work continues to sing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. It is always facinating to also discover the man behind the photographs. Simply looking a the complexity of your images, their construction, I would have expected you to be an intellectual (I mean this positively!) and a man who analyzes things. I am not disappointed and I can tell that you had asked that very same question to yoursef already. Needless to say that it was great reading you. I hope we can carry this conversation forward at some stage face to face. There would be nothing nore pleasing to me than to meet someone whose photographs have inspired me so much. A real priviledge to have you spend some time with us on BURN.


  38. For me Alex Webb is pretty much the top of the top when it comes to color reportage. I go out on the street with a Leica too but my pictures don’t end up nearly as complex. Pinkassov is great too. . .

  39. A good artist’s work is interwoven with the indefinable part of his personality.

    This undefinable part of personality cannot be reduced into psychological explanations or common denominators. The richness of Aex Webb’s work can only exist, because he leaves room into his work for the complexity and chaos, which inhibits any of us, all in a different way.

    I could never make his work. Nobody could. Because it’s Alex Webb. Like DAH stated, he insists that the work of his students reflect their personalities. Personalities are made up of a lot of things. But what makes art to be wonderfull, is the undefinable and chaotic inner part of personality, from which we create.

    What I sense in Martin Parr`s work, is not some sort of sunshade of this part of his personality, but what I sense is the mere defense system our current culture uses in order to deny the existence of that part. Every culture has elaborated complex defense systems against that undefinable chaotic part in every one of us. Every culture, as to be a culture, has too. It is a natural cultural process. But the danger is that culture destroys that part, or tries to make it harmless. Religions, fascism, dictatorships tried to destroy it.
    Why so? Because the power of this chaotic part of personality, expressed in life or art, is able to shake up the way culture has learned us how to canalise our desires and dreams. This process is a mixture of unconscious and conscious movements. Not any culture has succeeded to destroy completely the power of this chaotic part of a person. But many have tried and almost succeeded.
    Our culture takes a more sophisticated approach. It tries to make it irrelevant. It tries to make it’s rebellious power irrelevant. So we forget about it. So we are less sensitive to it.

    Martin Parr’s images are not rebellious against these complex underlying cultural movements. They surf on them, like on the waves of a sea. I must say, in a clever way. They can be seen as critical about our consumption society and in the same way as a confirmation of that consumer society. That provides the undefinable part of Parr’s work, so many people like. but this contradicion doesn’t emanate from the innermost personality. It is a contradiction so much carressed in our culture. We criticize and at the same hand confirm what we criticize. So we can sleep with our good conscience and keep on doing the same things we are doing. Parr rests vague. Surfing on the waves. It looks like criticism, it looks like art, it only looks like it… Safely guarded from the chaotic parts of personality which can rebel against underlying parts of culture. (note: the goal is not to rebel, rebelling is just a logical outcome of the fact you make something personal).

    Not thinking about the differences and similarities of “two different photographers”, is an easy way to dismiss important questions. It is the same as “all cultures are relative”, so we don’t have to think further. Or “there is room for both”. Of course there is!

  40. Thanks, David, for including us – and our work – here on Burn. It’s nice to be part of such a cutting-edge and lively online photographic community.

    Hi to Cathy, Sean, and Justin. Nice to see some photographers Alex and I have worked with before here on Burn. And hello to Frank and Patricia, who saw our slide talk at David’s loft last weekend, in which we set about 40 of Violet Isle photographs to a Cuban duet.

    First of all, thanks for all your responses. Alex and I realize it’s hard to get a sense of the complete book from just 10 images – especially a book that’s interweaves two photographers’ work. Thanks for the poetry (Wendy and Eduardo). And Sean, thanks for bringing up the Warsaw chimp photograph, the last photograph I took for The Glass Between Us. There’s a link on our blog (Postings: October 2009) to a recent interview in which I talk about the story behind the photograph.

    For Andrea C:

    You were wondering what text would accompany the images. Alex and I decided it made sense to have Pico Iyer write an afterword for Violet Isle after reading an essay he had written about Cuba in his book, Falling Off the Map. We felt his vision of Cuba (which he calls “the ambiguous island”) was in keeping with our view of Cuba. You can find an excerpt from this afterword on our blog (Sept. 14th posting: Making Books: Finding a Writer).

    In addition, there is a short piece written by Alex and me.

    For Brian Frank:

    You thought Burn readers might be interested in hearing more about how Alex and I edited the book and found a publisher.

    Alex and I strongly believe in what we often call “intuitive editing,,” in which we try to use the same eye that photographs in a spontaneous and intuitive way as the eye that edits one’s own work intuitively.

    For Violet Isle, we didn’t see this as a collaborative project until the spring of last year. It just so happens, soon after we made this decision, we were scheduled to teach a workshop in Peru, and started working on the edit each afternoon of the workshop when the participants were out photographing. We started the edit the way we always do when editing each other’s work –– spreading out the photographs (on the floor, on a wall, or on a table) and then starting to “play” with them, making relationships with images until they begin to talk to each other formally, poetically, thematically. We discovered during this Peru workshop that this was an ideal task to complement teaching, since teaching often leaves us quite exhausted, emotionally and creatively, and we often find it difficult to photograph our own projects after spending hours each day talking and looking at other people’s work. But, as we found out in Peru, during a workshop we also happen to be in the perfect mindset to edit our own work. In addition, it’s helpful to edit a book away from New York and our hectic schedule and our studio, and those day-to-day details that eat up so much time in a photographer’s life. Anyway, by the end of the workshop, Alex and I showed the participants our first sequence of what ultimately became Violet Isle, and their comments were extremely helpful. We finished editing the book in two other workshops –– one in Cadiz, Spain, the other in Venice, Italy.

    As far as trying to find a publisher for this rather unusual joint book, we first approached a large, rather traditional art and photography book publisher. Although there was strong initial interest in Violet Isle, it became clear the project was too off-beat for such a mainstream publisher. We’d heard about a creative, new small publisher, Radius Books –– and had met Darius Himes, one of the publishers, who’d shown us a beautifully printed book they’d done of Mark Klett’s photographs. So Alex and I decided to show our Violet Isle book dummy to Darius and the other Radius publishers. Interestingly, the very quality of the work that the larger, more traditional publisher saw as a weakness or detriment –– Violet Isle’s uniqueness –– was the same quality that Radius saw as one of the book’s strengths.

    For Justin:

    I’m not sure I’d use the modifier “ruthless” when describing Alex’s and my editing and sequencing process. It’s more akin to play. That said, I don’t remember any significant disagreements about the Violet Isle sequence. As you may recall from our workshop, when we edit other people’s work, we are often rather quickly in agreement. Since we’ve been editing each other’s work for 10 years now, perhaps that’s not so surprising.

    As far as a musical influence on this edit, it would have to be Cuban duets, especially the boleros. Our favorite Cuban duet, to which we have set the slide show of Violet Isle, is the bolero, “Silencio”, by Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo. It makes us both smile each time we hear it. It’s such a beautiful and melancholy duet. Anyway, here’s a video clip from Buena Vista Social Club with Ibrahim and Omara singing.

    Alex’s answer to your question, Justin:

    The decision to combine our respective bodies of work came after our penultimate trip to Cuba. Our collaboration is one of editing not of photographing. So, I don’t think this decision particularly changed how I worked in Cuba on our last trip.––AW

  41. kathleen fonseca

    Hello Alex, Rebecca

    I have heard of you both but don’t know your reputation, your work or anything else about you. Which gave me a wonderfully blank slate to look at this work. I had no expectations for you to live up to….well, er, that’s not exactly true. I dreaded another boring look at Cuba. Please don’t take offense, David, i never saw your work there (but Jim is enamored of it so it MUST be great!!!)..or Martin Parr’s either..but the usual, the old cars, the streets, the decaying buildings with their lost grandeur, the countryside, the sugar cane, the old men, *yawn*..i only saw one photo of Cuba that i ever liked and it was taken in a ballet studio, an amateur photograph posted on the web. I loved it so much. One photo. That’s it. Which brings me to this work.

    First, i find the collaboration extremely exciting. Just when one viewpoint is in danger of MAYBE getting redundant, the other approach slips in, zaps the tongue, cools the eye, frisks the brain, thuds deep down in the heart, oooohhh..i like this collaboration stuff! Left brain, right brain stuff, powerful stimulant, twoferthepriceofone and neither approach disappoints. This isn’t a duet to me, it’s a tango. Powerful tension, mutual respect, physical and mental attraction, the zing of challenging each other, the joy of sharing two different viewpoints, these are all palpable in this work.

    I tried to talk about the different photos, the birds, the people, the precise compositions, the insistent energy, but this work truly is interwoven. I can’t separate the two. There’s just this wonderful balance between the metaphorical, the whimsical, the thoughtful, the political, the human, the emotional, the Latino, the distinctly Cubano, the book is going to be an amazing work, i believe. Congratulations and i look forward to seeing the final version.



  42. Michael McGowan

    I really liked 6. 7. and 8. Did anyone else feel like the boy climbing out of the window, and the piranha in the fish tank were eerily similar? Great

  43. Amazing! I already known some of them. I love that point of view and the way that use Alex to tell stories. Very nice colors, perfect composition… simple, minimal, No superfluous, in other words wonderful :)

  44. Rebecca.

    I read some of your thoughts in the discussion with David, I think, about how you feel editing needs to be an intuition with you, has helped me very much in the confidence I know it will add for me in the future. Thanks for that observation. I struggle with maybe thinking and undermining myself as far as what is a good photo and what isn’t as good within my own work rather than simply settling on a gut feeling.


    I’m not one for owning photographic books but rather one who finds myself in the back corner of a bookshop finding my shoulder is about to give out after a couple of hours holding out a photographic book, which I can remember in this sort of a circumstance, looking through your photographs and how that world of the Carribean so mesmerized me and inspired me to also capture the human essence.

    Thanks …

  45. jenny lynn walker

    Well ‘This is It’ for me! A duet way beyond ordinary imagination – as could be our relations with the natural world if only we could let it. At first glance, the juxtaposition seemed to jar and then, very slowly as I took the time to really look and let the connections rise, my heart began to melt.

    How your individual perspectives are interwoven is simply magical – that union is exactly what makes the whole so fresh and at the same time, incredibly powerful. It packs a mean punch with its symbolism – human hands holding wings – and then I realised it is one of the most moving pieces I’ve ever seen. Would that there be a cat purring contentedly under the image of Fidel Castro!

    It is a duet that could begin to transform relations between men and women and, our appreciation of Nature the natural world. Told in 10 images. A complete inspiration!

    Thank you.


  46. Thanks Jenny Lynn, Panos, Peter and others for your thoughts and comments and questions.

    Along that same vein, we thought some of you may be interested in Alex’s and my statement about collaborating together on the Violet Isle book and exhibition, a statement which we posted below and on our “Two Looks” blog today.

    As always, we welcome your thoughtful questions or insightful comments here, and/or on our blog.

    Hope to see some of you at the Violet Isle opening/book launch a week from tomorrow at Ricco Maresca Gallery, Nov. 5th, from 6-8pm, or the gallery talk/book signing on Sat. Nov. 7, 4-6 pm. David posted the details with the Q&A.



    For the book and exhibition of Violet Isle, we chose to collaborate in order to create a more complicated and multi-layered portrait of Cuba, one that explores not just the streets of this Caribbean island, but also the relationship between Cubans and the natural world. Interweaving our work, we discovered, expanded upon our understanding of Cuba, upon the notion of an island in a kind of bubble –– a political, economic, social, and ecological bubble –– the latter, which scientists now say, may protect Cuba environmentally because of the dearth of cars and plastics and other consumer goods. This collaboration also allowed us to embrace visually and conceptually the enigma of Cuba, what Pico Iyer calls, the “ambiguous island.”

    Ultimately, we feel our Cuba photographs interwoven in the book or exhibited together –– with their echoes and tensions and cracks and contradictions –– create a more dynamic and complex portrait of the violet isle, a place prone to both political and romantic cliches, than either of our bodies of work shown separately. That’s what we found so fascinating and mysterious and humbling about collaborating on this project.

    “Cracks are a given between one collaborator and another,” the poet CD Wright once wrote about her collaboration with the photographer Deborah Luster, “that’s how the light gets in.”––Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

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  48. What I find most exciting when looking at these photographs is that they confirm Elliot Erwitt when he said, “You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them.” Finding and organizing pictures takes patience of course, together with a discerning and sensitive eye. But after seeing Violet Isle, you wonder how many other scenes are out there waiting to be captured. Is it all about esperando, the Spanish word for “waiting” and “hoping”, that Alex uses in the preface to this book?


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