New York City, teeming with action and iconic architecture, has often played the role of a photographer’s muse. Post-war photographer Todd Webb was not immune to its charm.
Freshly discharged from the Navy after World War II, Webb landed in New York, and his love of the city fueled his career as a full-time photographer. His images show the city in black and white and playfully juxtapose a formal aesthetic view with delightful snapshots of daily life in New York. The photos hold the city still: there are wide-angle shots of a smoky Midtown, a train speeding through Harlem, and sharply dressed urban dwellers that ground the work in a strong sense of place and neighborhood.
In 1946, the Museum of the City of New York featured Webb’s work in a solo exhibition. Now, 71 years later, the institution revisits his images in a showcase titled “A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York 1945-1960.” Around 130 photographs are on display, and they expose “the daily life and humanity of the city at a neighborhood level,” says Sean Corcoran, one of the museum’s curators.
In Webb’s work, we get a glimpse of how photography became a vehicle to learn about the city and navigate the inner workings of everyday life. There’s a potent sense of a place being lived in, which includes his photos of streets filled with storefront signs and no people.
Webb kept a journal detailing his photography, which the museum has on display, too. Referring to an image titled “Mazie: Queen of the Bowery,” Webb writes:
I walked on Third Avenue to the Bowery and saw an amazing woman. She was bleached blonde, loaded with make-up, really pretty awful. A guy, on the bum, insisted I take his picture and when she agreed I set up my camera […] It turned out that she was Masie [sic], Queen of the Bowery, and the gag was that the bum wanted me to take her picture giving him a dime. She walks along the bowery everyday giving out dimes to the down and outers. (March 27, 1946)
While Webb’s photography certainly included some conventional and universal images like skyscrapers and skylines, this journal entry showcases his intimate familiarity with regulars in the city—fixtures like Mazie, for example, who’d been profiled by writer Joseph Mitchell in the New Yorker in the 1940s.
The photos canvass almost all of New York, from a stretch of 125th Street down to the Lower East Side. “When you see them all together, you really get a sense of what life was like in these neighborhoods,” says Corcoran.
The exhibition is on display at the Museum of the City of New York through September 4, 2017. A companion show is on view at the Curator Gallery in Chelsea until May 20.