From Harlem to the Lower East Side, Postwar Images of NYC

  • "A City Seen: Todd Webb's Postwar New York 1945 - 1960" – Lexington Avenue, near 110th Street, Harlem, 1946. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Todd Webb Archive)
After World War II, he chronicled the street life and streetscapes of New York City with a large format camera, traveling across 125th Street, down the length of the Third Avenue El, around the Lower East Side and to places in between. He captured “The Traffic Outrage” of “congestion” on the Avenue of the Americas for Fortune Magazine in 1946. He studied with Ansel Adams and became friends with photographers and artists such as Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Berenice Abbott, and Gordon Parks.

But Todd Webb was never as well-known as his contemporaries. Now, 17 years after his death and seven decades after his first one-man show in New York, Webb is getting a double bill in the city whose story he told so effectively. “A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York 1945 – 1960” opens at the Museum of the City of New York on April 20, a day after a solo exhibit of his opened at The Curator Gallery, a commercial space in Chelsea.

At the Museum of the City of New York, which was the site of his first show in 1946, entitled “I See a City,” another Webb exhibit had been contemplated for some time, said Sean Corcoran, curator of prints and photographs for the museum. On the 70th anniversary of that first show, it seemed “appropriate,” said Corcoran, to mount the current exhibit, which has 131 vintage photographs – originally printed by Webb – as well as some diary entries.

Some of the exhibit’s most powerful photographs reflect the diverse neighborhoods he visited, giving a “time capsule” view, as Whitney Donhauser, Ronay Menschel director of the Museum of the City of New York, put it, of how people lived and the city appeared at that time. In Harlem, two women stand at a street corner, oblivious to the serviceman getting a shoe shine behind them. At 125th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue a line of people stand along the curb in front of a subway entrance. On the Lower East Side, vendors hunch over pushcarts and storefronts display chickens for sale.

Webb “has seen our city not as a glittering megalopolis, but as a community,” the press release for the 1946 show at the Museum of the City of New York stated. That description seems as apt now as it did in 1946.

“A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York 1945 – 1960” can be seen through Sept. 4 at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave. 

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