American photographer Todd Webb (1905-2000) was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. After losing all his money in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, he embarked on a seven-year adventure prospecting for gold and working as a fire ranger but had little success. After returning to Detroit in 1938, Webb bought his first camera and joined the Chrysler Camera Club where he met photographer Harry Callahan. In 1940 he and Callahan completed a 10-day workshop with Ansel Adams and Webb's fascination with the medium flourished.
After honing his skills as a Navy photographer in the South Pacific during World War II, Webb moved to New York in 1946 where he dedicated himself to photographing the everyday life and architecture of a city that captivated him. He enjoyed significant support from the New York photo community including luminaries Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott, to name a few. Stieglitz introduced him to Beaumont Newhall who helped arrange his first major solo exhibition of his New York City photographs curated by Grace Mayer. I See A City opened at the Museum of the City of New York in September 1946 to glowing notices.
This spring, over seventy years later, the Museum of the City of New York will present its second solo exhibition with Webb entitled A City Seen: Todd Webb's Postwar New York, 1945-1960 which will open on Thursday, April 20 and remain on view through September 4, 2017. Curated by Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints and Photography at the Museum, the show features more than 100 vintage prints as well as excerpts from Webb's journal writings.
On Thursday, April 20, an exhibition curated by former LIFE magazine editor-in-chief Bill Shapiro, entitled Down Any Street: Todd Webb's NYC Photographs 1946-1960 will open at The Curator Gallery, a commercial gallery space located in the heart of New York's Chelsea art district. The gallery show will include vintage prints as well as modern prints made by John Hill who printed some of Walker Evans' negatives.
Both shows reveal Todd Webb's intimate and wonderfully rich exploration of New York while providing an expansive document of the city in the years following World War II. Armed with a large format camera and tripod, Webb walked around New York engaging with the people and the landscape surrounding him. He captured in his candid and inimitable way a city of contrasts -- Midtown skyscrapers, the elevated tracks along Third Avenue, signs and storefronts, food vendors and open air markets, and the bustling street life in the Bowery, Harlem near 125th Street, and old ethnic enclaves in Lower Manhattan. The museum show also features Webb's portraits of his intimate circle of friends, including Alfred Stieglitz, Harry Callahan, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, and Lisette Model.
In the press release for the 1946 exhibition, Newhall wrote: "[Todd Webb] has seen our city not as a glittering megalopolis, but as a community. He has chosen to focus mainly upon Third Avenue and those blocks where the shops are small and living quarters crowded. He works with swift precision, directly and honestly recording what he sees. His straightforward, un-manipulated contact prints convey a maximum sense of authenticity and are historical records of obvious documentary value. More than this, they are personal interpretations, through which he has imparted to us warmth of appreciation and the excitement of visual discovery. He brings out the human quality even when the people are absence."
About the Artist:
Todd Webb is best known for his photographs of New York, Paris and the American West. His Paris series earned him comparisons to the French photographer Eugene Atget. In the 1940s and 50s, Webb worked for Roy Stryker and Standard Oil and Fortune magazine while simultaneously pursuing his personal projects. In 1955 and 1956, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship to document the emigrant trails that the early settlers followed to Oregon and California. He spent these years walking across the country not unlike his contemporary, Robert Frank. From 1961-1971, Webb and his wife Lucille lived in New Mexico where they became an integral part of the local arts community and Webb made a series of portraits of Georgia O'Keeffe at her home there. In 1970, Webb moved to the South of France where he continued to photograph regularly, and in 1975 he retired in Maine where he would live until his passing at age 94.
Over a period of more than fifty years, Todd Webb produced a unique body of work which attained an important place in the annals of American photographic history. Webb's humanistic approach to documentary photography infuses his images with a sense of intimacy and a curiosity in the relationship between history, place, and people. His life was like his photographs; at first they seem very simple, without obvious tricks or manipulation, but on closer examination, they are increasingly complex and marvelously subtle. For more information about the artist, visit www.toddwebbarchive.com.
A comprehensive monograph of Webb's New York photographs will be published by Thames & Hudson in the early fall of 2017. (Details coming soon.) Webb's portraits of O'Keeffe taken in New Mexico between 1961-1971 are currently on view in George O'Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum through July 23, 2017.
Image: "LaSalle at Amsterdam" 1946 / © Todd Webb Archive