Over 70 years after his first exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, photographer Todd Webb is getting his second one. The posthumous celebration of his work comes with a smaller showing in Chelsea, at The Curator Gallery; both shows open on April 20th. Webb's photos are stunning, and his list of fans and supporters of the time are well-known—Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott, Georgia O’Keeffe—but had you ever heard of him? I hadn't, nor had anyone I asked, including former LIFE Magazine editor-in-chief Bill Shapiro, who curated the upcoming exhibit in Chelsea.
Shapiro told me, "One of the reasons I decided to curate this show is because the work is outstanding yet I had never heard of the photographer. I remember when I first came across his photos—one amazing picture after another—saying to myself, 'Who the hell is this guy?' As the former Editor-in-Chief of LIFE, I’m fairly familiar with American photographs from that era but I’d never come across Webb’s name."
Recently I asked Shapiro more about Webb and his upcoming exhibit in Chelsea.
In the press release, it notes that Webb got his MCNY show the same year he moved to NYC, was this unusual at the time? That seems fast! Yes, that Webb was given a show in his first year living in New York was extraordinary, and it speaks to his tremendous talent as a photographer. He moved to the City at the top of ’46 and lived with photographer Harry Callahan. Soon after, he met Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. In his early days, he shot some of O’Keeffe’s work. They became important supporters. But he also made a remarkable circle of friends including photographers Berenice Abbott, Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Minor White, and many others who would become huge names in the field. But perhaps his key friendship was with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall. Beaumont was the influential head of the photography department at MoMA. In April of ’46, Webb secured a one-day-a-week job at the Museum of the City of New York: He shot pieces from their collection. But late that year, Newhall spoke to the head of the Museum on Webb’s behalf and the rest is history. Webb, ever humble, was concerned that he didn’t have enough good work to fill the Museum’s exhibit. In fact, he did. And I love that exactly 70 years after that first show, Webb’s work is returning to New York in such a big way.
His photos are stunning, yet mostly everyone I asked had not previously heard Webb's name, though they had heard of photographers like Berenice Abbott and Alfred Stieglitz. Why do you think that is? One of the reasons I decided to curate this show is because the work is outstanding yet I had never heard of the photographer. I remember when I first came across his photos—one amazing picture after another—and saying to myself, “Who the hell is this guy?” As the former Editor-in-Chief of LIFE magazine, I’m fairly familiar with American photographs from that era but I’d never come across Webb’s name. Webb was obviously not unknown—he had the Museum of the City of New York show and he’s collected by major museums—but he’s definitely been overlooked, which I’m glad to see is changing.
Why was that? A couple of reasons. For starters, he left New York. Just as he was ascending in the photo world, he moved to Paris where he met his wife and they stayed there for some years. Later, he and his wife followed their friend Georgia O’Keeffe to Santa Fe. After that, they moved to Portland, Maine. So he wasn’t exactly concerned with being in the beating-heart of the photo industry.
But there’s another reason: His personality. Webb wanted to make beautiful pictures. That’s really what he cared about. Really. He thought that money and material things were a distraction. In his diary, he said, time and again, that he’d rather do good work than have material success. Consider this entry (courtesy of the Todd Webb Archive):
12/4/46: In spite of being quite broke I am in good spirits. My photography is alive. In it I find joy without measure. It grows continually and with it I grow poorer and richer.
So Webb didn’t chase material success. He didn’t chase trends. He didn’t market himself. He was truly devoted to his art. And that’s another reason why I wanted to curate this show: I wanted to do what I could to help this amazing and amazingly dedicated photographer get the recognition he so clearly deserves. And that’s starting to happen, he’s starting to be rediscovered.
Do you know what Webb's life was like in NYC? Thanks to his diary, we know that he explored the city tirelessly, walking it neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block. Film was expensive back then—sometimes he left his apartment with film for only six pictures—so he really chose his spots and chose his moments. That was during the day. At night, he led a pretty active social life -thanks in part to Stieglitz, O’Keeffe, and the Newhalls—with the crew of artists and photographers mentioned above. He talks about parties and dinners where folks like Richard Wright, Man Ray, Bertolt Brecht, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Peter Lorre show up.
Where did he live? When he got out of the service and moved to NYC, he lived with his friend Harry Callahan and Harry’s wife. They lived on 123rd street. Webb slept on a roll-away cot. At some point, I believe he lived downtown with his wife.
Did you learn anything from his journals? He had a great sense of humor and lightness toward life, which comes in his writing and in his photography. Here’s a quick journal entry:
11/3/48: There is a great danger when you try to make your living with something you love as much as life itself. There is a temptation to be a success along conventional lines. . . The secret is to want very little. I must think and write about this. I would now but the stew is burning and the Liederkranz cheese is beginning to run all over the place
How did you come to curate this show? The owner of The Curator Gallery in Chelsea, where I curate photography exhibits, called me one day and told me that a woman left a box of pictures for me to look at. “A box of pictures” is rarely promising but I went down to the gallery to flip through them and I couldn’t believe what I was looking at: Glimpses of old New York that were artfully composed and that captured incredible warmth. The pictures captured architecture and people and how the two were intertwined. They captured our landmarks—the Brooklyn Bridge, the view from the Empire State Building, our concrete canyons, the flood of people on 5th Avenue. But they also captured a New York that doesn’t exist today, one with quirky hand-painted signs and idiosyncratic storefronts. And they captured those moments that all New Yorkers know: When you the turner and come across something you’ve seen before. They captured the wonder of the city.
The Curator Gallery show runs from April 20th through May 20th. The Museum of the City of New York opens "A City Seen: Todd Webb's Postwar New York, 1945-1960" on April 20th, and that will run through September 4th. Webb's work can also be found at the Brooklyn Museum, where some of his photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe are on display.