Sep 292012

Alex Webb & M.C. Escher

Masters of Confusion


The secret to becoming a Master

is making things which are very 

difficult look easy.  Escher is the 

grandfather of perfectly organized 

chaos.  Inside his maze of stairs or 

tangled lizards lie important lessons

on how to take the chaos of life and

lock it into a single frame.  


Alex Webb & M.C. Escher: Masters of Confusion by Adam Marelli

Bird & Fish. M. C. Escher

The Roots of Inspiration

As a young artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), later knows simply as M.C. Escher told his father that he did not want to study architecture.  His preference was for graphic arts.  Escher’s early woodcuts presented enough promise that he was allowed to drop the favored subject of architecture for drawing.  To most parents, the career of an artist is too risky.  Architecture has a distinctive ring of authority that has a greater appeal.   I recall a Spanish friend of mine in college who wanted to major in studio arts.  Her parents response was, “What do you think your are Picasso or something?”

For those individuals who commit themselves to art over the more pragmatic endeavors, there are typically generations of younger artists who are grateful for their resistance.  Because in all honesty, there will never be a period in history when being an artist is the favored profession.

Castrovalva, Italy. M.C. Escher

Travels in Italy

In his twenties the left handed Escher went south from his native Holland to Italy.  Day trips from his base in Rome would influence the next sixty years of his artistic career.  Before the streets of Italy were widened by the Futurist and Fascist architects (like Antonio Sant’Elia), Rome and its surrounding cities were a web of cobble stone streets reaching back to the time of the Roman Empire.  The width of the street was determined by the measurement of a chariot and two war horses and the paths were primarily driven by the trade routes of the Italian peninsula.  Over the course of two thousand years, the streets grew organically and homes sprung up in the empty spaces between staircases and piazzas.

Veduta di Goriano Sicoli. M.C. Escher

Escher set out to explore the lesser developed areas of the Roman province of Lazio.  The visual claustrophobia of central Italy’s smaller cities like Castrovalva ignited a fascination in Escher with how the layout of a city can affect the way we feel.  In essence this was an architects problem tackled by an artist.  Combining the sensation that buildings were piled one on top of the other and the geometric impact that Spain’s Alhambra had on Escher, we can start to see how his inspiration found its roots.

Two Birds. M.C. Escher

Regular Division of a Plane

For those of you who are not familiar with Escher beyond the calendars and trinkets available at book stores, I recommend looking at one of his books more closely.  He managed to combine a number of personal interests into a language that was so clear and so universal that every viewer feels as if they instantly understand his work.  The beauty and complexity of each piece does not become apparent until we try to dissect is design or anatomy.

Tile of the Alhambra (SPAIN). The source of M.C. Escher’s tiling fascination.

The regular division of a plane looks at the ways in which a single geometric shape can be divided into repeating, interlocking forms that cover the entire surface of the plane.  If you need a basic example have a look at your bathroom floor.  Any set of repeating tiles will give you the basic layout of an Escher division.  Like any sensible artist he started with the most simple shapes, square, diamond, triangle…and then grew into hexagons and expanding or contracting series.

Fish and Birds. M.C. Escher


Webb introduces us to the option of a single tile pattern that divides the top of one figure with the bottom of another. It creates a momentary Escher division and appears to be a challenging motif that Webb chose to develop during his career. Alex Webb.

How to apply Escher to Photography

The person who comes closest to Escher’s efforts in photography is probably Alex Webb.  When I look at a photographer’s work, one of my main preoccupations is “What is the work doing?”  I am interested in what the work does as an action or a verb.  The list of nouns and adjectives that often explain Webb’s work are useless.   Hearing that his work is magical, enigmatic, or mysterious doesn’t tell us what the images are doing or how they are work.

Esmeraldas Santa Rosa. Alex Webb

A few years ago I took a workshop with Alex, so I can briefly speak about his approach, or what he purports as his interests in photography.  His background is in literature.  As far as I understand he was not formally educated in the visual arts.   While he describes his work very eloquently, I found that an off the cuff question by one of the other participants elicited the most straightforward answer.  With a group of photographer in front of Webb, the student asked how he would see THIS particular scene.  Webb, who only works with a 35mm lens said that he is interested in her (pointing to the girl just to his right) and him pointing to the guy three people back, and him (over there against the wall).   The whole scene and the combination of the figures in the scene explains more about Webb’s work that three hours of dedicated lecture.  He combines elements throughout the entire frame to make a picture.

Webb was not the first artist to place a seemingly random pair of feet in an image. Here is Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere. Look at the feet hanging from the trapeze in the upper left hand corner.

Why does this matter?

When photographers ask me for critiques one of the first things I notice is if the photographer looks at the background.  Often times they do not.  If something could divide the student from the teacher, it would be whether someone even looks at the background.  If you want a great example of what happens when a photographer makes a picture while looking at the entire scene study Webb’s work.  The difference between someone like Bruce Gilden (who has never looked at a background in his life) or Alex Webb (who has made an entire career out of fully composed images) is striking.  If you want to improve your images, start with the background.

There may have been an earlier picture that brought the idea of the split figure into his mind, but this is the oldest one I could find in the archive. Mexica Matamoros, Tamaulipas 1978. Alex Webb

The Module

My suspicion is that after years of work Webb made a discovery.  I can’t say which frame sparked this idea, but somewhere in his contact sheets he discovered that with a 35mm lens he could use bits and pieces of anatomy to create a picture.  The head of one person with the legs of another, could make a cinematic effect.  Now what I am saying from this point forward is complete speculation, but I believe it to be true.

Escher starts with a single tile, then he inverts it and turns it over to create the tiling pattern. This regular division of a plane fascinated him for the the balance of his life.

Can you see the division points in the lizard motif. They are highlighted by the dots.

In Escher’s work we learned that if the top half of a figure gets cut off in the upper portion of a module, the bottom half must re-appear at the base of the module.  It sounds like a tongue twister written out, but is easier to understand as a picture.  See below, where we lose the top of one man, we must show the bottom of the other.  The same goes for the horse.

The horsemen shows us a more complex version of the tiling. Here he alternates the direction and colors while approaching something very similar to Webb’s image. The top of one set of man and horse are cut off at the exact point where the bottom of the other set is introduced. It is an elegantly solved design problem.

Is this type of symmetry easy to find in photography?  NO WAY.  Its a huge challenge, which is probably why it appears in some of Webb’s pictures and not others.  It must happen so infrequently and be so difficult to catch that it cannot be a regular part of the portfolio.  But, if you are looking for it…the symmetry will happen.  It is safe to say that there are many fortunate accidents in photography, but if someone wants to elevate their work above the millions of snapshots taken everyday, they will need a different approach.

This is probably one of Webb’s most successful images inside of this motif. It is clean, simple, nearly seamless. It includes just the right amount of each figure for us to feel like the top of one figure could be the bottom of the other. PERU Yauri. Alex Webb

I look at photographs everyday.  Whether its in print, on the web or people submitting pictures to me for review.  The single greatest flaw of any photo is not in the subject or the timing or some technical aspect like focus or exposure,  it is the other 90% of the frame beyond the subject.  A good way to think about an images is, if its inside of those 35mm, it better be there because you picked it.  If its there by luck or accident, chances are its not helping you.  But how is it possible to account for your entire frame, ask Alex Webb.  He will show you a career of thoughtful design and composition.

Webb shows us just one of the many ways that geometry can create a powerful image.  The apparent simplicity of Escher and Webb is actually a trick.  While the work reads immediately and feels so effortless, both artists are using complex techniques that require years of dedicated practice.  But I hope this little lesson will start you on the way to improving the possibility of success in your own pictures.

ASSIGNMENT: Webb & Escher

Using a piece of tracing paper decode the pattern of one of your favorite M.C. Escher images.  Notice where he makes the break in the pattern.  If it is an animal, does he cut it at the foot, the neck or anther joint.

See if you can take a photograph that recreates the same division within the frame.  (Note:  You might want to start by using toys, dolls, or objects instead of jumping right to real life figures)

Good luck! and post your findings below.


–Adam Marelli





  12 Responses to “Alex Webb & M. C. Escher”

  1. Wonderful. Hope there are many more to follow. Webb is one of my favorite masters of our generation. Haas, HCB, and Eliot Porter are my faves f/ the parental generation. Allard and Manos are also top faves.

    You are the only one going after a photo image in a structural manner. Many, if not most, living photogs cannot talk to the overall structure of the image, other than using the National Geographic approach of depth layers, gesture, a point of proximity’s making the picture, etc.

    • Hey Tom,

      Slowly but surely I will work through the list of our favorites. Manos’s “Greek Portfolio” has been on my writing radar for a while, just have not collected my thoughts on it yet.

      And I am happy to dive into the design and structure of an image. Not sure why more artists do not have this discussion publicly. Though its great to get the feedback from you guys, so I can continue in this direction. Would love to write a collection of essays on my favorite Magnum Photographers.


  2. f**king great article. Sorry, no other way to put it.

    I was waiting for some dissection on Webb for a while and you came through in spades=…and you even through some Escher into the mix (a childhood love, poring over his works, trying to get my brain around it, and still not being much closer….although articles like this one certainly help shine light!).

    And as for the essays on Magnum photographers – great idea, would love to see more of this!

    • Hey Dave,

      We like a little sailor talk every now and again, especially when it is in the positive.

      Happy to hear that Escher and Webb connected up well for you. I am not sure Alex would every confirm or deny any of it. Whether the relationship is intentional or accidental, it hardly matters on our end. The interesting thing to think about is that artists often come up with differing solutions to identical problems.

      As the month continue, there will be more on Magnum photographers. The next article waiting for publication is a comparison of Bruno Barbey and Cartier-Bresson. This article takes a very different approach to the topic of shooting the same subject. Hopefully I will publish it from Japan.


  3. Hi Adam,

    Thanks for this great post.

    I just watched a Clare Maguire music video and realize that they use a lot of Alex Webb technique in it too.

    Here is the link.

    • Hi Rossonero,

      I will check it out. Look forward to seeing what an “Alex Webb” inspired video looks like. Though it might make the viewer a little sea sick.


  4. Amazing article thank you. I’ve found myself trying to tile the last couple times I’ve gone out.

    • Hi Frank,

      It is certainly a challenge, isn’t it? But it great that you are looking for it while you are out shooting.


  5. Hi Adam,

    I have found this post extremely interesting. I have always been fascinated with the combination of M.C. Escher type artwork and photography. I have a collection of Escher inspired photography & artwork, droste images, tessellations and other similar styles as part of my Bangkok Print Gallery. I have posted a select set of those images my below.

    Sorry I missed your latest workshop in Bangkok. It is truly a fascinating place for a photographer as your images depict. Nice work.


    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for including the link. I love your elephants. Had a look at your site and there is some interesting stuff up there. I encourage others to have a look too.

      We will be back in Bangkok in January of next year for workshops round II. Maybe I will catch you then.


  6. Great approach and perfect discussion on the top and bottom motif.

  7. Hi Adam, I was searching for some Alex Webb photos and I ran across your article. Pretty interesting take on both artists, and mentioning the importance of the image as a whole instead of just focusing on the subject. I’ve captured a photo like that…with the legs on one side and body on the other, but I never thought of seeing it like this. Nice work, hope you are doing well.

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