THROUGH THE EYES OF ALEX WEBB
Peru is a land with a many-hued heart. Painstakingly weaved indigo blue and crimson red yarns in indigenous clothing. The tawny browns of terraced landscapes – a perennial reminder of Incan agricultural ingenuity – ripening into vibrant green. Murals that line the walls of bustling cities, and small towns bedecked with technicolor markets. When we wanted to capture the color and complexity of Peru through stunning destination photography, Magnum photographer Alex Webb was our first and only choice…
Words by Steph Green
To explore the breadth of Peru would take you from the sea-splashed Pacific coast, through to the Andean mountains, and into the heart of the Amazon jungle, passing subtropical desert climates and high-altitude valleys en route. One of seventeen ‘megadiverse’ countries on our planet, this is a land of breathtaking biodiversity and fascinating cultural history, and with that comes a whole spectrum of shades to capture on camera.
Alex Webb has enjoyed a long and celebrated career, having attended his first photography workshop over fifty years ago before becoming a member of the international photography cooperative Magnum in 1976. His accolades are too numerable to list, but they span awards, magazine spreads, prestigious gallery installations and several books, many co-authored with his wife, Rebecca Norris Webb. Alex’s fascination with high-contrast color and complex compositions has sent him working around the world, with a particular concentration of interest and photojournalism work in the US-Mexico border and the Caribbean.
Among all of his varied travels, however, a common theme has emerged: fellow creatives have been awed by his use of color. But more than mere color for color’s sake, for Alex, “color is about emotion.” He has been caught amid shelling in Beirut, experienced the aftershock of a Mexico earthquake and spent twenty-one weeks deep in the Amazon – just a smattering of examples among a career stuffed full of adventure – and through it all, he found that sociopolitical context and cultural significance is entirely inseparable from his approach to color. If you pore over some of his most celebrated photographs, such as 'Sanctus Spiritus’, ‘Children in Tehuantepec’, or ‘Gouyave, Grenada,’ each engenders a shared sense of visual wonder as well as an emotional response.
On the ground in Peru – strolling the streets, chasing the light, and stumbling on moments of perfect happenstance – Alex’s camera brings the landscapes and vigor of Cusco, Sacred Valley, the Colca Valley and Lima to life.
A local woman selling her colorful wares in Cusco's Baratillo market
On our first day in Cusco city, erstwhile capital of the Inca empire, the weather isn’t on our side; gray skies loom over us in the morning, while a lunchtime drizzle forces us to retreat. Steadfastly patient, Alex has us return to the same square – the Plaza de Armas del Cuzco – three times, in order to catch it in the best light. Prowling inconspicuously through the bustling square, he waits tolerantly for interesting shadows, angles and interactions, frequently disappearing down side streets and behind corners in search of the coveted perfect shot.
Alex says that street photography “is 99.9% about failure.” His style is influenced by pioneering street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lee Friedlander, whose respective love of candid documentary-style photography, urban environments and storefronts is echoed in Alex’s own lighting-in-a-bottle compositions. Within his own frames, he wrangles the chaos of street life with a sense of grace: a feeling of both effortless skill and serendipity.
Daybreak at Huaypo, halfway between Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Our second day is far more successful. We leave the colonial-era opulence of Monasterio, A Belmond Hotel at 5:30am, determined to catch the early golden rays of light, and soon pause at the mist-encircled Huaypo lagoon in the Sacred Valley. As daybreak filters through atmospheric condensation and birds soar and skim the shimmering water, a farmhand leads a cow through a field nearby, which is glowing golden in the morning sun. The day greets Alex’s camera with shining fervor, and our guide shares a popular legend about the origin of Huaypo and its sister lagoo, Piuray: that they are the physical embodiment of the children of Inti, the Incan Sun God. At this moment, it’s easy to believe.
A woman at work on the Maras salt mines
The light works yet more magic this morning at the Salt Mines of Maras, a collection of 6,000 individual pans which were built and operated in pre-Incan times. We arrive well before it opens for tourists and are treated to the rare chance to walk among the salt pans themselves, an activity that has been banned since 2019. As the sun slowly inches up into the sky, light bounces off each individual pan, which together form an incredible patchwork: butter yellow, ochre, eggshell white, terracotta.
Alex, ever drawn to the way people interact with the world around them, is particularly interested in photographing those who tend to the mines; his camera naturally gravitates towards a woman wearing a vivid red jumper, which contrasts beautifully with the muted shades of the pans.
A family on their community potato farm in Patacancha, the Sacred Valley
We’re treated to even more color when we journey on to the remote environs of Patacancha, which sits a cool 4,600m above sea level. Here we are welcomed to a remote potato farm, run by an intergenerational family who have retained both the farming and sartorial traditions of their ancestors. Alex gamely allows friendly villagers to garb him in local dress before he photographs them at work in the potato fields, where they plough the earth according to ancient techniques and bake the vegetables within the ground itself.
But for all the panoramic vistas and breathtaking landscapes, it’s the small towns, with their brightly-clad vendors and characterful markets, that Alex – ever the street photographer – is drawn to the most. When I ask why he is so interested in capturing shopfronts and markets, he replies: “I like anywhere where there’s life.” A pause. “I like the edges of markets. Just like the edges of an event are more interesting than the event itself. At least to me.”
A colorful side-street in the town of Chivay, in the Colca Valley region of Peru
This proves to be true a few days later in the Colca Valley, not far from our base at Las Casitas, A Belmond Hotel. While he enjoys the challenge of photographing the magnificent condors that soar above our heads en route to the Tapay canyon (“I’m gonna need a bigger lens!” he jests), it’s the small towns of Chivay, Yanque and Maca where Alex seems happiest: capturing a vibrant red flag fluttering against a blue painted wall in golden hour, or forming intriguing, complex compositions of women standing on a church ledge, stringing up colorful balloons in the early morning light.
Coincidentally it’s the anniversary of the town of Maca the day we visit, and there is a local competition taking place; the best decorated street will win a prize, and residents share laughter as they dress their stalls with bunting. Alex snaps the action with a smile, capturing a moment that breathes with authentic spirit.
Local women decorating the church in the town of Maca in the Colca Valley
When I ask if he has ever been tempted by motion photography, his answer is easy. “I tried it once, but I prefer to work alone.” Having witnessed Alex’s roving, curious and patient approach to street photography for a week, it’s clear that this method suits him well. “It’s a cliché,” he says, “but it’s like when people say films are to the novel as still photography is to poetry.” It’s clear that the ambiguity – the endless ability to interpret a still depending on the viewer, to ascribe one’s own personal slant to an image – is something that remains important to him.
But that isn’t to say that Alex isn’t a voracious cinephile, too. We talk eagerly about the work of Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov, from I Am Cuba – “when the camera follows the woman out of the party and then into the sea…I mean, wow!” – to The Cranes Are Flying, a war-set classic with groundbreaking cinematography. Two films he cites as recent favorites are both winners of the Oscar for Best International Film, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car.
It’s no surprise, then, that one of the world’s greatest photographers has inspired some of the world’s greatest film directors and cinematographers, too. The Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (winner of two Best Director Oscars for Birdman and The Revenant) and British cinematographer Sir Roger Deakins (winner of two Best Cinematography Oscars for Blade Runner 2049 and 1917) are just two of many artists who have cited Alex’s color-rich photographs as inspiration for their own craft – and he has met and interacted with these creatives personally, too.
A passer-by admiring street art in the bohemian district of Barranco, Lima
In Lima, Alex’s diligence bears yet more fruits as he captures serendipitous scenes on the streets of Barranco, the bohemian district of Peru’s capital and just a short drive from the chic, sea-hugging Miraflores Park, A Belmond Hotel. The rest of the city often succumbs to a sullen grey – known among Peruvians as the ‘garúa,’ or mist – due to warm inland desert winds clashing with the cool Pacific ocean breeze. But Barranco boasts intriguing street art, murals and colorful architecture, which Alex elevates through innovative shot composition.
Alex is always ready for a stylish passer-by or cyclist to pass through the frame and create an interesting dynamic. His patience results in visual alchemy: the monochrome Habit of a nun crossing the street contrasting against kaleidoscopic graffiti, or a pedestrian’s neon-green sandals harmonizing with the artwork daubed behind her. In front of a large piece of blue-hued street art, a fashionable Limeño in a golden faux fur coat and bright yellow stockings strolls past, creating a startling palette of contrasting color.
A passer-by walks through the the Bajada de Baños underpass in Lima
Alex’s monograph, which chronicles thirty years of his photography career, takes its title from a quote by the German polymath Goethe: “colors are the deeds and suffering of light.” By harnessing the power of natural light and capturing the way it paints a broad palette onto both unique landscape and bustling street life, Alex has carved out his own approach to the symbiotic relationship between emotion and color.
And in this land that is proud of its traditions, that deifies its landscape, that pulses with cultural creativity, Alex makes us look at Peru with fresh eyes. Through Quechua clothing and craggy canyons, Inca ruins and free-spirited cities, we marvel anew at the colors of Peru.