Street Photographer Captures Mexico’s Complexity Over 30 Years

Alex Webb's vibrant Mexican street scenes, taken over three decades, are published in his new book "Alex Webb: La Calle."

"The truth is that the history of Mexico is a history in the image of its geography: abrupt and tortuous. Each historical period is like a plateau surrounded by tall mountains and separated from the other plateaus by precipices and divides.” — Octavio Paz

Throughout Mexico, life spills onto the streets, as sidewalks and avenues become a place to gather, learn or entertain. Alex Webb was first drawn to the richness and complexity that plays out in the country's "calles," or streets, over three decades ago.

“I was startled and fascinated by this country, so close to the United States and yet so far culturally,” Webb, who grew up in New England, told NBC News. “I was intrigued by the vibrancy — the sense of energy — of life on the street in Mexico.” 

After early visits to border towns where the influence of American culture was unavoidable, Webb continued to return, each time venturing deeper into the country and always letting his curiosity guide his camera.

“Between 1975 and 2007, I photographed in Mexico more consistently than any other place in the world,” he said.

The increasing violence Mexico has recently faced from the drug cartels prompted Webb to revisit his work in the country. 

“Though the Mexico that I have experienced over the years has sometimes had a violent edge, the level of brutality — beheadings, bodies hung from road overpasses —in the current drug wars seems alien to the world of Mexico that I encountered when I first started making trips to Oaxaca in the early 1980s,” he said.

Webb’s visual explorations from his time in Mexico come together in “La Calle,” published this fall by Aperture. Essays by Mexican authors accompany Webb’s images, articulating what the country’s streets mean to them. Together they create a glimpse of a country fighting to balance its rich history with a modern culture.

The allure of Mexico’s culture may never fade for Webb, despite fewer recent visits.

“Interestingly enough, now that I am trying to photograph more in the United States, I find myself drawn to the vibrant street life in Mexican communities in such disparate places as Indianapolis and Brooklyn.”

Above: León, Guanajuato, 1987

Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, 1996

Alex Webb / Magnum Photos
Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, 1985 Alex Webb / Magnum Photos
Oaxaca, Oaxaca, 1990 Alex Webb / Magnum Photos
Ciudad Madero, Tamaulipas, 1983 Alex Webb / Magnum Photos
Tijuana, Baja California, 1991 Alex Webb / Magnum Photos
Norogachi, Chihuahua, 1995 Alex Webb / Magnum Photos
Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, 1979 Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

Morelia, Michoacán, 1984

Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

Ciudad México, DF, 1984

Alex Webb / Magnum Photos
Tenosique, Tabasco, 2007 Alex Webb / Magnum Photos

Tijuana, Baja California, 1999

“Alex Webb: La Calle, Photographs from Mexico” was published by Aperture. An exhibit of the photographs is currently on view at the Aperture Gallery in New York City until Oct. 26, 2016.

Alex Webb / Magnum Photos