A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York, 1945-1960 @MCNY

JTF (just the facts): A total of 131 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and displayed on beige walls in and around the north-west gallery on the third floor of the museum. The exhibition spaces include a corner at the end of the corridor outside the gallery, the three outer walls and the two inner walls of a partition inside the gallery, as well as the wall between the two entrances. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, of which 60% are vintage. Sizes range from roughly 5×8 to 16×20 inches (or reverse). The multi-print panorama Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Sts. (9 ¾ x 80 ¼ inches) hangs on the wall beside the introductory wall text. A vitrine on the north side of the partition contains magazines, letters and other ephemera. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Everything about this show feels right. The scale of the rooms; the cheerful colored backgrounds to the wall texts; the number, variety, selection, placement, quality, and lighting of the prints; the temperature of the air-conditioning; and of course the venue: the Museum of the City of New York launched Todd Webb’s career by sponsoring his first solo show, in 1946. Anyone could spend a pleasant hour here this summer learning more about this underappreciated photographer (1905-2000).

No overreaching claims are made here for Webb. His heartfelt but unsentimental documentary work pictured New York (and many other places) with the clarity and optimism of his teacher Ansel Adams. The curator Sean Corcoran highlights those skills and, by alluding to work by some of his contemporaries, gives them a proper frame of reference.

Born in Detroit and raised in Ontario, Webb tried several careers (stockbroker, gold prospector, fire ranger, short story writer, automobile executive) before deciding in the early 1940s that photography was a worthy calling. (He and Harry Callahan were converted in a class taught by Adams at the Detroit Camera Club.) At the outbreak of World War II, Webb enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he was a photographer in the South Pacific. Discharged in 1945, and with the encouragement of Alfred Stieglitz, he moved to New York.

Corcoran has divided 15 years of post-war work into 9 sections that reflect Webb’s initial forays around the city, the neighborhoods that he more systematically explored, and the artistic luminaries in his orbit.

“Welcome Home” is the opener, a touching series from 1945 that simply notes some of the many apartment doorways and shop windows decorated with homemade or commercially produced signs, greetings for the returning troops. The names may recall another time (“Welcome Home Nickie and Sal,” “Welcome Home Joie,” “Welcome Home McSorley Boys”) but the sentiments of the home front, gratitude and relief that family members or neighbors had made it back alive, haven’t changed since the Trojan War.

Webb’s intoxication with New York on his arrival can be measured by the disproportionate number of prints in the show (by my count more than three-fourths) dated between 1945-47. On his excursions around the city, he mostly walked, while carrying a 5×7 or 8×10 with a tripod. Only in the 1950s did he add the more flexible, handheld Speed Glaflex to his kit.

The larger format in some cases may have dictated what he wanted—or could feasibly—photograph. The section on the “Financial District” consists mainly of deserted, shadowy streets; the images were made in early morning before the subways began to disgorge the crowds. The best pictures here take advantage of the camera’s manipulation of perspective. In The New Tombs (100 Center Street) from 1946, he bends one of the striated facade of one tall building, like Superman twisting bars of steel in a jail cell; in Park Row Window from 1947 each of the panes seems to curve, reflecting a different fragment of urban reality.

These photographs could be mistaken for Callahan’s, and that’s probably not an accident. Webb shared an apartment with Harry and Eleanor when he arrived in the city: $38 a month, on 123rd Street near Amsterdam Avenue  The pictures in the section on “Harlem” were therefore not products of a visiting anthropologist. This neighborhood was for several years Webb’s home.

The Harlem pictures (all dated 1946) mirror not only his comfort on these streets but his idealistic view of American urban life. (The wall text points out that we see no signs of the destructive 1943 riot, begun when a white police officer shot and wounded an African-American soldier.) Webb’s photographs celebrate an integrated city, where children of various ethnicities hold hands in summer as they circle a hydrant-sprinkler on Lasalle Street and Amsterdam Avenue. A white soldier has his shoes buffed by a white shoeshine boy on a corner of 125th Street next to an African-American couple.

Webb seems intent on defying the popular stereotype of the place as a destitute ghetto by noting the diversity in class and income of the residents. Some are well off—as evidenced by Mr. Perkin’s Pierce Arrow, the graceful lines of which are cleverly offset by the jagged zig-zag of an exterior fire escape behind the parked car—while others are probably not. Atget or Evans would have been happy to come back from a day of hunting for pictures, having taken A Whisk-Broom Salesman on 125th St.; or the shop on 123rd Street with the hand-written sign in the dirty window: “tailor is dead. H. Reid. but business will be carried on as usual by son. W. Reid.”

You can sense Webb’s delight that he was at times welcomed. In a crowd of passersby on 125th Street, a shapely black woman looks over her shoulder and gives him and his camera a flirtatious smile. At the same time, he did not ignore the forces of displacement in this uptown corner of New York. Two photographs depict the razing of old tenements to make way for public housing projects.

The professionalism of Webb is beyond dispute. He began to work for Fortune in October, 1946 and was hired in 1947. (An issue, with his photographs of streets choked with cars, illustrating a story on the city’s traffic problems, can be found in a vitrine.) What’s missing sometimes is an idiosyncratic sensibility. A lot of the photographs in the sections “Midtown,” “Third Avenue Elevated,” “Lower East Side and Fulton Market,” and “Greenwich Village” might be the work of half-a-dozen other highly competent old hands. However engaging it is to see photographs of places that no longer exist, such as the El or countless vegetable stands, they serve chiefly as artifacts of nostalgic history.

“Friends and Colleagues” brings his accomplishments into relief. The wall of portraits of (and examples of work by) his circle of friends—Callahan, Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Beaumont Newhall, and Gordon Parks—inadvertently reveals the truth that his solid body of work does not rank in originality with any of theirs (with the exception of Newhall.) Along with a 1965 portrait of Roy Stryker, his boss at Fortune, there is a self-portrait from 1946. Webb sees himself as a genial American—in a plaid shirt and solid-color tie, seated on the branch of a cherry tree—a view that from reports by others was correct. He was an honest and diligent craftsman whose photographs reflected his character.

The outlier in the show is “Signs in the City,” a sample of his steady documenting he did of torn posters, hand-written notes, two-dimensional characters, and brazen commercial messages on the sides of buildings. These pieces of a cryptic and an unreliable narrative formed the silent background noise of life for New Yorkers and most urbanites as they went anywhere in the 1930s and ’40s. Without laying out the lineage, Corcoran wants to join Webb with the likes of Atget, Evans, Siskind, Penn, Stuart Davis and the Pop artists.

Webb belongs in their company. His tour-de-force was a panorama, a seamless montage of 8 prints, that captures an instant of life one (morning?) in 1948 along a block of Midtown, on Sixth Ave. between 43rd and 44th Streets. Two automobiles parked at the curb, and the hurrying clusters of pedestrians, are like props on a stage set. The real star is hustling New York itself, specifically the stores and their signs (on two levels) that are designed to persuade customers they should stop and buy something. The are shops for tuxedos, cigars, luggage, records, artist materials, razor blades, new and used books. There is a bar, a restaurant, and (barely visible on the corner) the Hanover House Hotel, where Woodie Guthrie composed “This Land is Your Land.”

Stretched tightly, edge to edge, the series of recessed letters and shapes are rendered on a continuous flat plane, as if Webb were carving a black-and-white hieroglyph as well as making a photo-graph. You may have resist the urge to run your hands along its light and dark surface.

Corcoran has cleverly placed the print at the entrance to the show, as a precursor and a summation of what’s to come. Like the signage on the Sixth Ave. stores, it’s an advertizement for the goodies visitors will find once they step inside.

Hat’s off to him and to MGMG. design for such a straight-forward and cogent installation, and watch for the more permanent version, in the Thames & Hudson book (here) scheduled for release in the fall.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum retrospective, there are of course no posted prices. Webb’s work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with prices ranging between roughly $1000 and $22000. Most of the available prints have found buyers under $5000, with his multi-image street panorama fetching the top prices. A gallery show of Webb’s work was recently on view at The Curator Gallery in New York (here), with prices ranging from $1800 to $6100, based on size, with the panorama available at $30000. Prints are also available directly from the Todd Webb Archive (here).

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Read more about: Todd Webb, Museum of the City of New York (MCNY)

One comment

  1. Cody Franchetti /

    Mr. Woodward’s review is undemanding, obvious—and at times, even gullible.
    I especially decry Woodward’s stating that, “The wall of portraits of (and examples of work by) his circle of friends—Callahan, Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Beaumont Newhall, and Gordon Parks—inadvertently reveals the truth that his solid body of work does not rank in originality with any of theirs”. Surely those mentioned are great artists. But it is exactly that latter quality that lacks in Webb. And I mean it in the best sense: his eye is one that does not reveal the narrating “I” of the portrayer; rather, it pierces the ‘populous desert’ that is New York City, with its anomalous, eccentric, both-withdrawn-and-gregarious populace (nowadays we call them ‘communities’) contrasted against its stunning architecture which make a fascinating and eerie experience. Nothing is less ‘artsy’ than Webb’s photos, and that is what is so catching about his work.
    Finally, for what it’s worth, I should like to reiterate my main qualm, which Woodward seems instead to fancy: the show is not well lit, and, more often than not, the works are poorly framed.

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