NEW YORK, NY.- In 1958, photographer Todd Webb, best known for his remarkable images of the everyday life and architecture of New York and Paris, as well as photographs of the American West, was commissioned by the United Nations Office of Public Information to document the progress of industry and technology in what were then eight different African nations, either recently independent or on the cusp of gaining independence in the aftermath of World War II.
Over the course of four months, Webb traveled through Togo, Ghana, Sudan, Somalia, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and Southern Rhodesia (which are now Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe), Tanganyika and Zanzibar (now merged as Tanzania), and Kenya. Outfitted with three cameras, he amassed approximately 2,000 images in that time, but only 22 of them were published by the U.N., in black & white, in a 7-page brochure. The remainder of the negatives were dispersed in the 1970s and only reunited with the Todd Webb Archive in 2017.
Taken in color, these images of countries at the intersection of colonialism and independence stand out from Webbs well-known images of the streets of New York and Paris. The newly released book Todd Webb in Africa: Outside the Frame (Thames & Hudson, Winter 2021) showcases more than 150 of these striking color photographs from his African journey, documenting not only industrial change but also people, homes, landscapes, and daily activities, bringing the past to vibrant life.
In the books Introduction, co-authors Aimée Bessire and Erin Hyde Nolan write: Todd Webb in Africa: Outside the Frame investigates the motivations and complicated historical narratives embedded within Webbs photographs, mining a complex body of work with an intersectional mindset." The authors acknowledge Webbs practices as ones that were informed by American understandings of African nations, cultures, and historiesall during a pivotal moment in race relations and civil rights in the United States. Most importantly, the essays gathered within this book acknowledge the challenges of interpreting Webbs photographic series within their colonial context and from todays temporal distance.
Todd Webb in Africa also features essays by African and American scholars, artists, historians, photographers, and writers who engage with Webbs photographs, on both historical and artistic levels, to provide context for the images and insight into the role that photography played in presenting to the rest of the world the social, governmental, and economic transformations of these African countriesincluding their national independence and entrenched imperialism.
Todd Webb in Africa is published to accompany an exhibition opening at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) on January 28, 2021. Casey Riley is the Curator and Head of the Department of Photography & New Media at Mia. The show was developed by Riley and other Mia collaborators, along with the book's co-authors, Aimée Bessire and Erin Hyde Nolan. Following its run at Mia through June 13, 2021, the show will travel to other venues in the United States to be announced.
The exhibition is organized into eight sections: Colonialism + Independence, Portraits + Power Dynamics, Urbanization, Education, Trade + Transport, Built Environment, Impact on the Environment and Archival Materials.
A Miraculous Discovery
These only recently discovered color photographs taken in 1958 are published and exhibited for the first time in Todd Webb in Africa. The images went missing for decades after Todd Webb had a run-in with a shady dealer. In 2015, Betsy Evans Hunt, the Executive Director of the Todd Webb Archive, received a tip which ultimately led to the discovery of the lost negatives in five trunks in a California basement. Miraculously, the negatives Hunt recovered were in pristine condition.