Book Review: I See A City, Todd Webb's New York
By Leah Pfenning
New York City, 1945, a bygone epoch of America with few and fading traces remaining today. A New York when push carts, dime cinemas, and “welcome home, boys” posters decorated the streets. When men were garbed in hats and trousers, and it was hip to be hep cats. When the Bowery and “bourgeoisie” would never share a sentence, and the E1 train still ran above ground in Manhattan for twenty cents a ride. A New York when a bright-eyed Todd Webb and his camera came to get a grip on a fading time, capturing moments that would become the iconography of the era.
I See A City, Todd Webb’s New York was published posthumously and edited by Betsey Evans Hunt, a collaborator and dear friend of the late Todd Webb. Hunt had a meet-cute with Webb and his wife, Lucille, in the fall of 1989 in her newly opened gallery in Portland, Maine. Hunt was immediately taken with the couple, who came to be her most loyal patrons. They quickly entered into a business partnership – which was much more of a familial relationship – after Hunt came to understand just who Todd Webb was, and what his work was and still is today. Because of their friendship, when Webb passed away in 2000 Hunt inherited the responsibility of his estate, and she has since made it her goal to continue to share and educate people about Webb and his oeuvre.
Webb was the quintessential late bloomer. He didn’t take up photography until later in life, after losing all his money in the stock market crash of ’29, trying his hand at prospecting gold, and a three year enlistment in the Navy during WWII. Webb was forty and penniless when he first moved to New York in 1945. He spent his early days in the city sleeping on a mat in the kitchen of his good friend Harry Callahan. Yet Webb was infatuated with the city and had an intuitive sense of its ephemeral state. He took to the streets, walking for hours each day scouting locations to photograph, visiting them several times throughout the day to determine when the lighting was optimal.
Webb shot on a large format camera with a tripod; it was tedious and expensive to take a photograph and thus Webb was very conservative about snapping an image. There was a courting, a whole relationship developed with the world within the frame before Webb crowned the moment in eternal silver film. He was a romantic in that way, blessing the streets with a patience and care that woos the bricks into a blushing, bodacious animate. The photographer spoke of quality above anything else.
“I am a hell of a lot more interested in making fine photographs than I am in making dough. I feel like the great American misfit. I am sure if I had my choice of making fine photographs for a very small living or making corny photographs for a lot of money… I would choose the former.”
Talking about taking your time is one thing; to live it is what makes the difference between a photographer that takes photos, and a photographer that takes moments and elevates them into a realm of timelessness. The silver worlds croon: Oh, take me back there. The work swings and dips you between a blissful nostalgia and the mired complexity of the post-war city. Much of Webb’s photography is unpeopled, storefront architecture and signage. While we think of “back then” as a simpler time, Webb subtly directs our focus back to the social inequities of that era, and the darkness of emerging from a war. Take for example, a photograph of a handwritten sign taped to shop window on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem that reads,
TAILOR IS DEAD.
BUT BUSINESS WILL BE CARRIED ON AS USUAL BY SON.
Much of what Webb chose to photograph was along the E1 line, the last above ground train running in Manhattan. He gravitated toward the more economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of the city. Eschewing the flash and glam of the upper class, he wanted to capture the collective, candid soul of a city on the cusp of gentrification. Between 1945 and 1960 New York was booming. The changing face of the city was a common topic of discussion among fellow photographers and friends, but Webb was less interested in showing the changes coming or the deterioration of the old New York. Instead he worked with the heart of a preservationist to soak up all he could of what was beginning to be swept away.
Money can’t buy everything. It certainly couldn’t buy Todd Webb. It did, however, buy out the city as Webb once saw it. A city of shadows and lights, a city with a throbbing, visceral spirit he genied out so we wouldn’t forget she was there. Webb saw a city that no longer exists, and never will again. But he has taught us that nothing ever truly dies that has been loved. There is an old New York that lives on because Todd Webb was there. He saw it and he loved it, and thanks to him, we can, too.
All photographs are copyright Todd Webb Archive from the book I See A City: Todd Webb’s New York published by Thames & Hudson.