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  • by Matthew Wheeler

ALEX WEBSTER: Challenging Perceptions

In photography, as in most visual art disciplines, making a statement is important, but often equally important is the ability to provoke questions. Alex Webster is a Toronto-based photographer whose panoramic photographs are immediately striking, but they also challenge viewers’ perceptions and provoke curiosity.

Webster says, “I think provoking questions should be a pervasive theme in all art. If someone can walk by a piece of art without questioning what it’s getting at, or what it’s about, then it’s not finished work."

Webster’s entrance into photography began with a camera his father gave him in high school. Although his interest briefly waned during his high-school years, he applied to the photography program at Ryerson University. Webster wasn’t initially accepted (due to the small size of his portfolio at the time), but he, nevertheless, persevered and continued to show interest in photography. Completing his BA in English Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, he continued improving his skills and building up his portfolio by taking continuing education courses at Ryerson. Webster notes that a major turning point came for him after partaking in an intensive three-week course offered by Ryerson: “After spending three weeks taking photos, talking photo, and learning the history of photography, I knew that I would eventually get involved in photography more intensively than the average person.”

Webster’s continued interest and involvement in photography eventually culminated in his acceptance to Ryerson and the subsequent completion of his degree there. He believes that his varied education and experience have contributed to his artistic skill, discipline, and philosophy. He explains, “I often took away much more from my peers’ critiques than my own. The importance of being able to vocalize your own work’s purpose with the appropriate language was also emphasized.” Webster’s acceptance of constructive criticism and his knowledge of narrative have led him to create art that often centres on experience. He focuses on creating multi-dimensional art, rather than just achieving one aspect of visual communication.

“I think my [English degree in Montreal] helped me begin to understand that art needs to be about something more than the face value components that make it up. Funny dialogue doesn’t sell a movie if there isn’t a decent story to support it. I think the same of photography that is executed with an extremely high technical standard but doesn’t offer any further depth or engage the viewer on different levels.” Webster feels similarly about using a panoramic format only for the sake of the format itself. He states that, initially, he was apprehensive about creating panoramas, but later he felt that his work began to demand them.

In his Challenging Perceptions series, Webster used the panoramic format as a way to introduce the qualities of time and movement into a visual experience. “My initial idea of incorporating two times of day into one photograph started with a single frame, but then expanded into panoramas when I realized the potential qualities of marrying them together.” says Webster.

Webster says he doesn’t see himself exclusively as a panoramic photographer: “I think the initial shock of seeing 180 degrees at once is an amazing thing, but it can’t be relied upon to give photos credibility in art. I think it’s a dangerous format that can often end up being more about the aesthetic qualities and less about what’s actually in the photograph.” For Webster, the medium he uses must be complementary to the experience he is trying to establish in his art. “I think the viewer is challenged to believe my panoramas were shot all in one moment because that is how we are accustomed to viewing photographs. We think of them as solitary moments captured in a split second. My work plays with that norm and presents a very different picture of reality: a moment that spans time and space, but remains a fixed image."

While he cites the monetary expenses associated with photography and the difficulties associated with starting a business as potential obstacles, he is ready to learn from his future experiences as he has learned from the past. Webster’s determination to view “the world through different forms of presentation and perspectives,” allows him to see opportunities for growth and expression in a field with an abundance of challenges in store.

This article previously appeared our WINTER Issue - 2008.

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