Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba • Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb • Magnum Photos

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Violet Isle: A Duet of Photographs from Cuba

Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb’s book captures the invisible and the impending

Alex Webb

Alex Webb Baseball fans, Sancti Spiritus. Cuba. 1993. © Alex Webb | Magnum Photos

As the long out-of-print book by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb is reissued, the husband and wife team present writings on their joint project.

In Spanish, the word “esperando” means both “waiting” and “hoping,” a layered meaning that starts to get at the feel of the Cuba I’ve photographed since 1993. But what are the Cuban people waiting and hoping for? What lies ahead for this complicated and vibrant island? —Alex Webb.

“I have three rooms in my house,” a soft-spoken Habanero who raises cockatiels and lovebirds and parakeets told me during a recent trip to Cuba. “Two are for my birds, and one is for my wife and me.”—Rebecca Norris Webb.

Rebecca Norris Webb Pigeon wing. On this rooftop pigeon coop in Old Havana, a breeder is spreading open the wing of a pigeon he bred to have blue and green feathers. Havana, Cuba. 2008. © Rebecca Norris Webb / Distributed by Magnum Photos

"But what are the Cuban people waiting and hoping for? What lies ahead for this complicated and vibrant island?"

- Alex Webb

This book began as two separate projects: Alex’s exploration of the streets of Cuba and Rebecca’s surprising discovery of unique and sometimes mysterious collections of animals throughout the island —from tiny zoos and pigeon societies to hand-painted natural history displays and quirky personal menageries. As we photographed more extensively in Cuba, however, we began to realize that despite the differences in our ways of seeing and our choices of subject, our work sprang from a response to a similar notion: the feel of a nation in a kind of bubble, an economic, political, cultural, and ecological bubble.

For, thanks to the vagaries of history and politics, Cuba has now existed for some fifty years outside of the world of globalization, outside the vast currents dramatically transforming the face of our world today. For how many 21st-century countries have almost no commercial advertising? How many remain comparatively free of plastics and other pollutants, one reason, scientists now say, that Cuba may be protected environmentally? And how many countries have, for better or worse—for indeed it is both—resisted so adamantly the incursion of U.S.-inspired culture?

Rebecca Norris Webb Roosters exercising on rooftop in Old Havana. Havana, Cuba. 2008. © Rebecca Norris Webb / Distributed by Magnum Photos
Alex Webb Old Havana, Cuba. 2000. © Alex Webb | Magnum Photos
Rebecca Norris Webb Green parrots in handmade cage. Playa, Cuba. 2008. © Rebecca Norris Webb / Distributed by Magnum Photos
Alex Webb Inside a store. Regla, Cuba. 2003. © Alex Webb | Magnum Photos

"So, in the spirit of a duet—with its point-counterpoint—we decided to weave our images together to create a multi-layered portrait of this 'Violet Isle'"

- Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

So, in the spirit of a duet—with its point-counterpoint—we decided to weave our images together to create a multi-layered portrait of this ‘Violet Isle,’ a little known name for Cuba that is inspired by the rich color of its soil, this island in a bubble whose people and animals seem caught out of time, a place that’s engaging yet unsettling, a place that’s vibrant yet vulnerable, a place that—for better or worse—probably won’t exist as it is much longer. —AW and RNW, from “Two Looks,” their afterword to Violet Isle, written in January 2009

Rebecca Norris Webb Piranhas at the National Aquarium. Havana, Cuba. 2008. © Rebecca Norris Webb / Distributed by Magnum Photos

American essayist and novelist, Pica Iyer, best known for his travel writing, had this to say about Violet Isle.

“Not many photographers can catch the invisible or impending, what has been pushed down below the surface or is just around the corner. But Alex, for me, has always been something more than just a photographer…He is, I think, a probing essayist on the modern world’s impulses towards anarchy, a shadow sociologist.” —Pico Iyer, from “The Sunlight in Shade, the Stillness in Motion,”

“It’s as if [Rebecca] captures the melancholy interiors, and all the quirky secrets kept there, one reason, perhaps, the island still survives in spite of everything.” ––Pico Iyer, from “The Sunlight in Shade, the Stillness in Motion,” – afterword to Violet Isle.

"Not many photographers can catch the invisible or impending, what has been pushed down below the surface or is just around the corner."

- Pico Iyer
Alex Webb Havana, Cuba. 1993. © Alex Webb | Magnum Photos
Alex Webb Children playing in a playground. Havana, Cuba. 2000. © Alex Webb | Magnum Photos
Rebecca Norris Webb An immature red-tailed hawk (irises are yellow until they deepen to reddish brown when mature), a species popularly used in falconry. Havana, Cuba. 2008. © Rebecca Norris Webb / Distributed by Magnum Photos
Alex Webb Street scene. © Alex Webb | Magnum Photos
Rebecca Norris Webb Inside a pigeon coop in Old Havana. Havana, Cuba. 2007. © Rebecca Norris Webb / Distributed by Magnum Photos

Buy a signed copy of Violet Isle on the Magnum shop here.