Art

In Todd Webb’s Mid-Century Photographs, the Sidewalks of New York Come Alive

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In the new exhibit “A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York, 1945–1960” at the Museum of the City of New York, there’s a photograph titled simply 123rd Street, Harlem. It’s an exterior shot of a storefront window with a handwritten sign that reads as follows: tailor is dead. H. Reid. but business will be carried on as usual by son. W. Reid.

Of the 135 photos on display, so many teeming with urban bustle, a quiet moment like this is easy to overlook. The picture is not, for one, sentimental. Life merely goes on. But it is personal, deeply so — a human gesture from the kind of mom-and-pop neighborhood operation that helped make this city great — and this empathic touch is very much in line with Todd Webb’s worldview, one that took him to a postwar New York awash in optimism.

Webb was born in Detroit in 1905 and became serious about photography only in his thirties, after attending a seminar given by Ansel Adams, one of the progenitors of the “straight,” or “pure,” style. The years just following would see Webb deployed to the Pacific theater as a Navy photographer; after the war he settled in New York and set out upon what might have been the most substantial phase of his career.

“I call it the wide-eyed, passionate experience of a newcomer to New York,” says Sean Corcoran, MCNY’s curator of prints and photographs, who organized the exhibit. “Photography was his excuse to explore the city, to meet people, to understand what the city was. Ultimately, when you look at his pictures, what makes them so extraordinary, to me, is that he’s interested in the humanity of the people in the city.”

Webb may have been extraordinary, but his name doesn’t necessarily come to mind when you think of memorable New York photography, whether from fellow purists (and friends) like Paul Strand and Berenice Abbott or from the MoMA-championed 35mm stars of the decades to come — the Winogrands, the Friedlanders. That may change with this triumphant show.

“I think Todd Webb’s work should be better known,” Corcoran says. “Within the photography community, he’s known, but I think more people in the general public would be impressed with the work if they actually had a chance to see it.”

Now they will, and though there isn’t a catalog to accompany the exhibit, Thames & Hudson will publish a volume of Webb’s work at the end of the year. His own long-out-of-print 1991 collection, Looking Back: Memoirs and Photographs, reveals a man enthralled with his adoptive city — especially Manhattan, whose look, feel, secrets, people, and neighborhoods he described in his diary. The city, he wrote, was “like a series of small towns”; in 1948, he referred to it as “my lovely New York.” (As a third-generation New Yorker, I can’t recall ever hearing that word used to describe this town.)

Webb schlepped around a large-format 5×7 camera and a tripod, later upgrading to a Speed Graphic (a handheld, maybe, but still a handful). He was open to discovery — a Chinese New Year celebration; two stout, wary Italian nonnas on Mott Street; a black child, unconvinced during the Thanksgiving Day Parade — and he had his favorite spots. He photographed the corridors of power in the financial district and the cut-time rhythm of Sixth Avenue in midtown. (One of his best-known pieces, included in the show, is a transfixing panel of eight prints between 43rd and 44th streets.) And despite all his cool artist friends — and there’s an entire section devoted to their portraits, from Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe to Gordon Parks and Helen Levitt — he didn’t ignore other classes or circles.

Webb began his New York experience in Harlem — crashing with his friend the photographer Harry Callahan, for $38 a month — and he documented uptown life with seriousness and affection. The Lower East Side, to which he was also drawn, was, he wrote, “a very potent section of the city for me. The buildings are old and…the layers of paint on the storefronts give a good feeling to the eye….The people are mostly poor, I think, but somehow they have a dignity that you do not expect to find….It seems to be an area of different ethnic groups. I saw Spanish stores, Greek coffee houses, Italian and Polish shopping centers.”

He found inspiration, too, in a mid-century New York on the cusp. Some of what he shot would soon be gone: the streetcars on 125th Street; the Third Avenue El, that exposed vein coursing through the city; Lüchow’s, now, like the Palladium — another 14th Street emblem of a different era — an NYU dorm.

Yet his work remains free of the schmaltz that often smudges windows into the past. Webb may have had good days in New York — productive, transformative ones — but his careful output doesn’t represent the “good ol’ days.” It is, like that image of the Harlem storefront, subtler than that, more finely shaded, a loving look at the New York that once really was.

A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York, 1945–1960

Museum of the City of New York

1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street

mcny.org

Through September 4

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