HUCK × VANS
THE CHANGING FACE OF BROOKLYN,
NEW YORK’S MOST COLOURFUL BOROUGH
After three decades spent capturing stories around the world, Magnum Photographer Alex Webb finally decided to return home to Brooklyn – a place that champions chaos, diversity and community spirit.
TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHY: Alex Webb / Magnum Photos
There have been two eras of extreme divisiveness in the US that I’ve experienced first-hand in my lifetime: the late 1960s-1970s, and now.
As a young photographer and college student in the early ’70s, I felt profoundly alienated from my country, which was deeply divided by the Vietnam War and other socio-political issues. Though I did photograph the Boston busing crisis – when the state’s schools were under court control to desegregate through a process of busing students – in 1975 I ended up taking somewhat alienated photographs of the American social landscape. Ultimately, I felt I needed to leave the US to find my way of seeing as a photographer.
Now, after three decades of photographing predominantly in the Caribbean, Latin America, Turkey, and other places outside the US, perhaps I’m finally ready to photograph my own complex country. I’ve become drawn to the complicated worlds of American cities – Brooklyn, but also Houston, Indianapolis, Memphis, Denver, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, among others – to begin to figure out what to make of my strange and fractured country.
It’s why I’m currently working on a book about Brooklyn — in collaboration with photographer Rebecca Norris Webb, my wife and creative partner — the borough we’ve called home for some 20 years. I’ve been particularly drawn to its cultural and ethnic richness and variety. In many ways, the borough epitomises one of the things I’ve long admired about the US: that it is a nation of immigrants. In this sense, Brooklyn is a kind of antidote to the increasingly disturbing anti-immigrant sentiment of the current administration. Some historians say one out of eight of all American families has had a relative that lived in Brooklyn.
I never know what I’m going to find when I walk the streets of Brooklyn, but I hope that in these particular neighbourhoods, where many young artists live, I might discover moments that resonate with notions of nonconformity and creativity.
I’m certainly more optimistic about New York than other parts of the country. New York seems like a haven from the radically reactionary politics of the current US administration. Apparently, over 80 per cent of Manhattan dwellers voted against Donald Trump. As Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, said of Trump: “I’m a New Yorker and I know a con when I see one.” That notion certainly endears me to our city.
I don’t believe in photographs that ‘sum up’ an idea. I like photographs that embrace complexity and contain several ideas – perhaps even conflicting ones. Perhaps that’s why I’ve long been attracted to photographing cities. I appreciate photographs that are a little ambiguous, enigmatic, or mysterious. If one can simply boil down a photograph to an idea, why take the photograph?
What advice would I give to young photographers? Follow your passions, your obsessions. Channel the unconscious urges that drive your vision, rather than trying to please others. The rewards of a career in photography are fleeting and unpredictable at best – so spend your time concentrating on what you believe in. Most importantly, be true to yourself, to your beliefs, and to your way of seeing. Perhaps that in itself is an act of rebellion.
Photography: © Alex Webb / Magnum Photos
Read more stories from This Is Off The Wall, an editorial partnership from Huck and Vans.