Todd Webb didn’t come to photography directly. The Detroit-born Webb first worked as a stockbroker, then the Stock Market Crash of 1929 left his finances in ruin. He prospected for gold in California and Panama, with little success, and spent some time as a fire ranger for the United States Forest Service. Returning to Michigan, he worked for Chrysler. Then World War II broke out, and he was deployed to the South Pacific with the United States Navy.
As a Navy photographer, he honed a hobby he’d taken up in the 1930s as a member of the Chrysler Camera Club. Yet it was only after the war that he moved to New York City and tried to make it as a professional photographer. With a keen fascination for the bustling humanity of Manhattan, he took his large-format camera out to the streets, capturing its people and places in all weather and seasons.
I See a City: Todd Webb’s New York, out today (November 21) from Thames & Hudson, chronicles this era of Webb’s postwar photography. Edited by Betsy Evans Hunt, the executive director of the Todd Webb Archive, it concentrates on photographs from the 1940s and ’50s. The book follows the A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York, 1945-1960 exhibition recently at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), which commemorated a 1946 exhibition of Webb’s work at the museum.
“Rather than concentrating on the glamorous nightlife and modern, shining towers often seen in magazines such as Life or Look in the postwar years, Webb was interested in finding the remarkable in the quotidian,” writes Sean Corcoran, curator of prints and photographs at MCNY, in I See a City. “At the same time, he was conflicted about how to continue to create meaningful personal work while making enough money to survive.”
Although Webb had early success, including with the MCNY show and through a relationship with Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery, he struggled to balance between taking on commercial work and committing his camera to fine photography. I See a City shows a prolific period of the city as muse. In particular, its people and signs. Author Daniel Okrent writes in a book essay:
In fact, Webb didn’t need people in his pictures to show the presence of life. “I have an intense interest in and feeling for people,” he wrote in one of his journals. “Often, I find subject matter with no visible persons to be more peopled than the crowded street scene. Every window, doorway, street, building, every mark on a wall, every sign, has a human connotation.” Thus his profound engagement with shop windows, and signage, and even the peeling and fading posters clinging tenaciously to forgotten walls, fragments of urban archeology redolent of hopes and dreams.
Webb documented the handmade “Welcome Home” signs for returning war veterans, as well as the weathered “Buy War Bonds” posters. His photographs are frequently cacophonous with signs that advertise films, roasted peanuts, pawnbrokers, shoes, the circus, photos “made while you wait,” radios, records, and a “Fat Men’s Shop” with clothes designed “to fit any size man.” Painted on the bricks, formed in neon, or gilded on the windows, each adds to the dense visual layers in the photographs. One handwritten sign, taped to a window, contains a whole somber tale: “Tailor is Dead … But business will be carried on as usual by son.”
New York had altered little during the 1940s thanks to the war and the lingering depression. That was soon to change. The streetcar which Webb shot rumbling by at 125th Street and Broadway, was removed in 1948; the Third Avenue elevated train, where he spotted a horse-drawn carriage among the cars in its shadow, would be torn down in the 1950s. Even the crowds of pushcart vendors on the Lower East Side were thinning. Webb may have been reveling in the street-level sights of his new home, but he was also capturing the vestiges of its past before a midcentury transformation.