Todd Webb didn’t move to New York to become a photographer until he was 40 years old. He had always had an interest in photography, whether he was working in Detroit’s auto industry or mining for gold in Central America, but it wasn’t until 1945 when Webb, having just served in World War II, decided it was now or never. He moved to New York City and began capturing the city’s spirit.
Now, his remarkable photos of life in the city during the 1940s and ’50s are on display at The Museum of the City of New York. The exhibit entitled, A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York, 1945-1960, features prints of Webb’s work along with personal journal entries that catalogue the stories behind his pictures.
Beyond just the wonder of seeing the city as it was 50 or 60 years ago, there are strong connections in the exhibit to the NYC of today. The photos were taken just after the major construction and growth spurt of the 1930s, when New York was going through great change and the transformation of the neighborhoods in Webb’s photographs really resonate as much now as they did back then.
“That’s kind of when Midtown was created,” exhibit curator Sean Corcoran said. “The Empire State Building, the Chrysler building, and all those buildings had been built in years before. So when Todd Webb moved to New York in 1945, he was interested in the remnants of the people, and neighborhoods of the city, like the Lower East Side and Harlem. And so he photographed small communities, neighborhoods.” In Webb’s photographs, Corcoran explained, we see the importance of community and neighborhood networks. Webb was fascinated by the changing landscape of the city, something that New Yorkers still face today.
Along with Webb’s slice of life photographs, the exhibit also showcases his photography journal. Webb was a detailed journal keeper, and the stories behind his photographs give museum goers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the subjects and places that Webb was drawn to.
“There’s a photograph he made of some kids,” Corcoran said of one of the entries. “There are four kids standing in front of a store selling, I think, seamen supplies. There are life preservers and buoys and things like that in the window. And in the journal, he describes setting up his tripod and camera to make a picture of the storefront when he was approached by neighborhood kids. They were like, ‘What are you taking a picture of that for? You know, we’re more interesting. Why don’t you don’t you take a picture of us?’ So he kind of went with it and just made this picture. In the journal, he goes on about how these kids have this strong New York accent and they’re asking him like, ‘So what do you want us to do?’ He’s like, ‘Just stand there naturally,’ and these kids and their New York accent say something like, ‘So you want us to act nonchalant huh?’ And even in the journal he actually wrote in parentheses, ‘It sounded funnier in real life than it does in my journal.’
This is the first major museum exhibition of Webb’s work since the Museum of the City of New York first exhibited his early work in 1946. The show is running now and will be on display until September 4th, 2017.