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‘I See a City: Todd Webb’s New York’

Lady looking back at the camera, 125th Street. (© Todd Webb Archive)

'I See a City: Todd Webb's New York'

“I See a City: Todd Webb’s New York“ presents the master documentary photographer’s intimate and wonderfully rich exploration of the everyday life and architecture of New York in the years following World War II. Armed with a large-format camera and tripod, Webb walked around New York day and night, in all seasons and weather, 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 train tracks along Third Avenue, quirky 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.

Webb loved to work at street level, which gave him a more human vantage point. His work is clear, direct and layered with light and shadow, capturing the soul of New York’s distinct neighborhoods shaped by the friction and frisson of humanity.

“I See a City ” includes essays by Sean Corcoran, the curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, and Daniel Okrent, an American writer and editor.

On Webb’s special affection for the Third Avenue El, a popular location for midcentury movies, including the 1948 Jules Dassin film “The Naked City,” Okrent writes: “In Webb’s pictures, the El itself is an actor, playing both leading and supporting roles. Simultaneously shadow and substance, vertical and horizontal, populated and empty, it was an ideal foil for Webb. Originating at Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, it crossed into Manhattan near East 129th Street in Harlem and rumbled downtown to South Ferry, along the way affording the photographer a constantly changing set of moods: romance, mystery, muscular commerce, essences of noir — even, as unlikely as it seems for so ungainly a creature, a facsimile, at least, of streamlined speed as the train charged around the curve near the Fulton Street station.”

Over a period of more than 50 years, Todd Webb produced a unique body of work that 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 about 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.

Todd Webb (1905-2000) was born and raised in Detroit, Mich. 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 shared an apartment in Morningside Heights with his friend Callahan and Callahan’s wife, Eleanor. He enjoyed significant support from the New York photo community, including luminaries Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, and Gordon Parks, among others. It was Stieglitz who introduced Webb to Beaumont Newhall, who helped arrange his first solo exhibition of his New York City photographs at the Museum of the City of New York in September 1946. This body of work established Webb as an internationally renowned and respected photographer.

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 Eugène Atget. In the 1940s and 50s, Webb worked for Roy Stryker and Standard Oil and “Fortune” magazine while simultaneously pursuing 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 walked across America engaging with the people he met along the way during the same time his contemporary, Robert Frank, made his cross-country road trips by car. 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, the couple moved to the South of France, where Webb continued to photograph regularly, and in 1975 he retired in Maine, where he would live until his passing at age 94.

Here’s a look at images from the book “I See a City: Todd Webb’s New York,” published by Thames & Hudson, November 2017. To celebrate the release, upcoming book signings are Nov. 30, 5-7 p.m., 61 Pleasant St, Suite 104A, Portland, Maine; and Dec. 13, 6-8 p.m., the Curator Gallery in New York City.

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