Through a lens, fondly


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  • Todd Webb, Lexington Avenue, Near 110th Street, Harlem, 1946. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York and the Todd Webb Estate.




  • Todd Webb, LaSalle Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Harlem, New York, 1946. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York and the Todd Webb Estate.




  • Todd Webb, The Battery, New York (Peanut Peddler), 1945. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York and the Todd Webb Estate.




  • Todd Webb, East Seventh Street, New York ("Welcome Home McSorleyBoys"), 1946. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York and the Todd Webb Estate.




  • Todd Webb, Under the 3rd Avenue EL, New York, 1946. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York and the Todd Webb Estate.



Two exhibits showcase the postwar NYC photographs of Todd Webb

BY VAL CASTRONOVO

Todd Webb (1905-2000) is one of those figures who achieved a certain degree of fame in his lifetime, then faded from view. He came to New York in November 1945 after being discharged from the Navy, managed to pull off a solo show of his photographs at the Museum of the City of New York in 1946, then followed Georgia O’Keeffe to New Mexico around 1961, photographing her and pretty much flying under the radar before ultimately settling in Maine.

Today, he is largely unknown, though in the postwar period he traveled in rarefied circles, hobnobbing with the likes of O’Keeffe, her husband Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott, Gordon Parks, Walker Evans and Beaumont Newhall, among others. Newhall, head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, recommended Webb to MCNY and curated his postwar show, “I See A City.”

The press release from that exhibit is on display at the museum. “He has seen our city not as a glittering megalopolis, but as a community. He has chosen to focus mainly [on] those blocks where the shops are small and living quarters crowded,” it reads.

Indeed, Webb was drawn to people and neighborhoods as much as, if not more than, the city’s landmarks and soaring architecture. The streets of immigrant New York on the Lower East Side and Harlem are pictured with great affection and humanity — even when they are devoid of people.

As Bill Shapiro, curator of the show at The Curator Gallery in Chelsea and former editor-in-chief of LIFE, writes in the handout, Inside Todd Webb’s Pictures: “Webb shot both the iconic and the idiosyncratic sides of New York, her sweeping skylines as well as those tiny, fleeting moments that define life in the City.”

Stieglitz paid Webb the ultimate compliment when, comparing him to Ansel Adams, he said: “Your photographs have tenderness.” That tenderness is palpable in the 131 vintage prints at the museum and the 33 vintage and modern prints at the gallery, where photographs are for sale.

“What you really get to see is what New York was like for a newcomer coming to the city,” MCNY Director Whitney Donhauser said at a preview of the museum’s exhibit. “He used photography to familiarize himself with an unfamiliar setting.”

With the encouragement of Stieglitz, who Webb first met in New York in 1942 when he was en route to active duty, he determined to spend one year after the war roaming the streets and photographing what he saw — though one year turned into some 10 years documenting the cityscape.

When Webb first moved to New York, he shared an apartment with photographer Harry Callahan and his wife on West 123rd Street near Amsterdam Avenue. “He lived off his savings from his military pay — he had no job. He just photographed and explored the city,” MCNY’s curator Sean Corcoran said.

He habitually took a streetcar across 125th street to the east side of Manhattan, where he would hop the Third Avenue El to Midtown, the Lower East Side and the Financial District. He captured images from the top of the El and from under the El. His subjects ranged from a peanut peddler at the Battery (1945) to a man in uniform getting his shoes shined on a street corner in Harlem (1946).

New Yorkers of a certain age will wax nostalgic at the sight of old-style establishments like McSorley’s in the East Village (1946) and Barbetta in Midtown (1946), not to mention long-defunct Sloppy Louie’s on South Street (1959) and bygone bars and storefronts on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets (1948).

Webb was driven. In his gallery handout, Shapiro has paired some of his favorite photos with entries from the lensman’s journal, which he started when he arrived in New York. His dedication and enchantment with the city is expressed in an entry from Feb. 25, 1946: “In spite of the cold and windy weather, I had to go out today. The light was beautiful and I was full of New York.”

Work was his passion, but he was not in it for the glory — or the money. “I think I understand now that work, not worry about material things, is the key to happiness for me,” he wrote on Dec. 31, 1946.

In 1949, he went to Paris, where he met his future wife, Lucille Minqueau. When the pair, now married, returned to New York four years later, they lived on St. Luke’s Place in Greenwich Village, where Webb shot snowy street scenes and bannisters.

He nabbed back-to-back Guggenheim fellowships in 1955 and 1956 and went on to photograph the UN General Assembly before finally leaving New York to pursue his calling in New Mexico and elsewhere. (Eight of his portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe in the Southwest can be seen at the Brooklyn Museum in “Living Modern,” through July 23.)

That first summer in the city was a heady time, though. As he enthused in July 1946, “It seems like a very good life ... I am broke. But what the hell, you can’t have everything.”



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