American photographer Todd Webb (1905-2000) didn’t get his start until later in life; after working as a banker, he lost everything in the 1929 crash and eked out a meager living West, first as first a gold prospector then a forest ranger. In 1934, he returned to his native Detroit to work for automobile manufacturer Chrysler, which donated a camera that Webb used on a trip to Panama.
Upon his return, Webb joined the Detroit Camera Club, where he met lifelong friend Harry Callahan, who he would go on to live with when he moved to New York in 1945 to become a professional photographer. Well enmeshed in the city’s booming postwar cultural scene, Webb’s career took off. In 1955 he was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to create a portrait of the United States while walking coast to coast — the same year Robert Frank made The Americans.
In 1958, the United Nations commissioned Webb to travel across eight countries in Africa over the course of five months to document the industry, technology, and modernization at the dawn of the African Independence Movement. The photographs, long lost, have just been unearthed in the new book and exhibition, Todd Webb in Africa: Outside the Frame.
An Outsider’s Search for Understanding
Beguiled by romantic notions of Africa, Webb chronicled his journey to the continent with the spirit of a nineteenth-century adventure novel protagonist. “I am breathlessly awaiting my first glimpse,” Webb wrote in his journal. “Minutes away from the dream — seeing Africa. It is hard to believe. At last! The sight of land.”
Like many outsiders, Webb saw Africa as a country, not a continent that was the cradle of humanity, one so varied and rich it contains all the greatest genetic diversity on the planet. Reductively, Webb searched for a certain “Africanness” everywhere he went, never able to find or define that which did not actually exist.
Instead, Webb was left to photograph what was actually there, helping the United Nations construct the story of developing nations such as newly liberated Ghana and Sudan, as well as Kenya, Togo, Somalia, Tanganyika and Zanzibar (now merged as Tanzania), and the Federation of Rhodesia, Nyasaland, and Southern Rhodesia (which are now Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), most of which would earn their independence in the coming decade.
Webb worked in both color and black and white, working in multiple formats with a Leice 3, a Rolleiflex, and a 6×7 medium-format camera. The color works are particularly vivid, evoking not only a poignant period in time but also preserving the very nature of the people and the land at a time when color photography was not readily available in Africa.
To make these images, Webb had to adjust to what he described as “seeing color,” which he considered “work” whereas he described black and white photography as his “love.” Ironically, the UN published Webb’s color photographs in black and white, leaving the originals to go unseen until Betsy Evans Hunt discovered them packed away in five steamer trunks in the basement of a collector’s home.
Of the 2,000 photographs Webb made, only 22 were published until now. Taken as a whole, these images invite us to contemplate the ongoing relationship between independence and imperialism, and the role that photography plays in the creation of history.
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Todd Webb in Africa: Outside the Frame
On view through June 13
Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404, USA
Edited by Aimée Bessire and Erin Hyde Nolan
Thames & Hudson
Book available here.