Book Review: I See a City by Todd Webb

Todd Webb didn’t become serious about photography until he was around 35 years old. At the time, he was working in the Detroit auto industry after stints as a stockbroker, gold prospector, and Naval officer, respectively. In 1945, when he hit 40, he left that job behind and moved to New York to pursue with an almost spiritual conviction what he had discovered, at long last, was his life’s calling.

Upon arriving in New York, he immersed himself in the photography world. Alfred Stieglitz was one of his mentors, and MoMA curator Beaumont Newhall helped arrange for him to have his first solo exhibit, held at the Museum of the City of New York. He shared an apartment with Harry and Eleanor Callahan, became close friends with Berenice Abbott, and hobnobbed with a who’s who of luminaries, all of whom expressed admiration for his work. Yet, despite all of this, Webb has been largely overlooked as a photographer.

That’s a shame, because Webb created a strong visual record of a city on the verge of enormous change. That in itself gives his work value, but what takes it to the next level is how impactful many of the images in I See A City are—visually, emotionally, and intellectually.

One of Webb’s most impressive images is a perfectly executed composite shot of an entire city block along 6th Avenue. The final image is comprised of six separate frames, seamlessly and meticulously lined up and stitched together, well before Photoshop and iPhone camera apps made it easy to somewhat clumsily approximate that process. It’s reproduced in the book as a two-page spread, but it demands to be seen larger, so that viewers can truly immerse themselves in the scene and study the details.

Just as effective is a simple photograph of a horse and buggy parked behind an automobile under the el tracks. The horse is resigned to waiting patiently while the driver makes his delivery rounds. The light and composition guide your eye around the photo to the storefronts, the windows, the train tracks, and more. It’s an elegant depiction of a city in the process of reinventing itself.

It’s also an image created via time and patience. Partly out of necessity, Webb had developed an economical shooting style. As Sean Corcoran explains in his introduction, Webb spent most of his time scouting locations, watching the light, and anticipating the moment. That process paid off in exceptionally strong final images. Webb used large format cameras, notably the Graflex Speed Graphic (popular at the time among press photographers, including Weegee), as well as a 5×7 Deardorff field camera, mounted on a tripod. The image fidelity and perspective control of large format photography give a kind of enhanced veracity to Webb’s urban landscapes and scenes of daily life.

Not all of the book’s 150 black-and-white photographs are as brilliant as these, but they are all interesting. The book was edited and sequenced by Betsy Evans Hunt, executive director of the Todd Webb Archive, and she displays a deep understanding of the photographer’s work. There’s a rhyme and reason behind the sequencing and the variations in the layout. Most of the images are given individual emphasis while working together to create a coherent whole.

To that point, early on, a double-page spread presents a sequence of eight photos, reproduced at equal size, showcasing signs hung in doorways welcoming home returning American GI’s at the end of World War II. Later, towards the middle of the book, a photo of a handwritten note taped to a store window perfectly captures the impersonal, terse, and businesslike side of the city while giving Hemingway’s shortest story a run for its money: “TAILOR IS DEAD. BUT BUSINESS WILL BE CARRIED ON AS USUAL BY SON.” Putting space between these images enables them to be appreciated separately; had she placed them together, it would have dulled their impact and felt too repetitive.

Amsterdam Avenue near 125th Street, Harlem, 1946 (Todd Webb Archive)

Among Webb’s urban landscapes, one photograph that stands out portrays the chaos of midtown traffic on a rainy, overcast day. It evokes a sensation that will likely be familiar to anyone who’s ever experienced a downpour in Manhattan, and it perfectly captures the ways that New Yorkers behave in such situations.

Webb’s captions are generally limited to the place and year (His rainy day shot is captioned “Sixth Avenue and 48th Street, 1946,” for example), and that’s really all the information that’s necessary.

Times Square, New York, 1946 (Todd Webb Archive)

After seeing the city, Webb traveled extensively. In 1949, he moved to Paris for a few years, and in 1955, under the auspices of a Guggenheim fellowship, he trekked cross country–on foot, no less–taking photos. Todd Webb In Africa, a book of color photos made on assignment for the United Nations in the 1950s, was published by Thames and Hudson earlier this year.

Originally published to coincide with a retrospective exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York (the same museum where Webb had his first solo show), I See A City is a book for those interested in New York City’s history as well as street photography. It should hold a special appeal for those who harbor a sense of nostalgia for that particular time. And it’s for those who have yet to add Todd Webb to the pantheon of great American photographers.

I See A City: Todd Webb’s New York by Todd Webb. Essays by Sean Corcoran and Daniel Okrent. Thames and Hudson, 2021. 176 pages. Hardcover.

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