Review by Gerhard Clausing •
New York City has always held a special place in the hearts and minds of the world. The New York of the mid-1940s through the 1950s had its own unique atmosphere. One of the busiest metropolitan areas, it was characterized by neighborhoods with distinct characteristics and a somewhat more leisurely pace, somewhat apart from the hustle and bustle of the commercial areas, which also were more individually distinct than they are today. The troops had come home from World War II and were welcomed warmly by the citizenry; the charm of the past was still to be seen as the future was peeking over the horizon. For the photography world, this was the time of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe (whom Webb later photographed in New Mexico), the Callahans, the Newhalls, Minor White, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Gordon Parks, and others with whom Todd Webb was well connected.
Todd Webb had a knack for finding the unusual in ordinary subjects. The New York shown in his work is distinguished by the loving depiction of the vestiges of times gone by within the context of the moment; the emphasis is on neighborhoods such as Harlem and the lower East Side, all with their distinct buildings and signage. Often the humans depicted recede into the background, dwarfed by the enormity of the city, buildings of old and other structures such as the “El” (elevated city rail transportation), many of which have since been replaced. In fact, many times Webb would leave out people and merely photograph evidence of their activities or concerns, such as signs welcoming soldiers home or shop windows with their personally or culturally unique visual and verbal messages. There is an appealing timelessness and slower pace to the city as depicted here, mostly from a street-level perspective, a historic window into the many details making the mosaic that was the NYC of that time, a portrait that also gives a certain amount of dignity to subjects not members of the more upscale part of society, as Daniel Corcoran points out in his essay.
This sumptuously printed oversized volume presents the best of Todd Webb’s New York City work, collected in an appealing sequence edited by Betsy Evans Hunt, the Executive Director of the Todd Webb Archive, who also details her connections to Webb in the appendix. There are also two illuminating essays, by Sean Corcoran and Daniel Okrent, that supply details about the background of the photographer and his time. The images are accompanied by captions that provide the place and year for each; the sequencing is well paced to suit the variety of subjects and moods.
This photobook is published in association with a Fall 2017 exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York and at The Photography Show at AIPAD, April 2018. I consider this project to be of special historical and artistic significance.
Photographer: Todd Webb (1905-2000; born in Detroit, Michigan)
Editor: Betsy Evans Hunt
Publisher: Thames & Hudson, New York, NY; © 2017
Essays: Sean Corcoran, Daniel Okrent, Betsy Evans Hunt
Sewn hardback with illustrated dust cover; 10 x 12 inches; 150 black-and-white images; 176 pages, paginated throughout; printed and bound in China
Photobook Designer: BTD/NYC
Wow. The Elvis Presley sign, the old hats, the sign that says, “ tailor is dead, but business will carry on by son.” Priceless. For everything else, there is Master card, just wow.