Todd Webb in Africa: Outside the Frame

Thames & Hudson. Jan. 2021. 256p. ISBN 9780500545393. $50. PHOTOG
In 1958, the UN sent Todd Webb to photograph development in sub-Saharan Africa, where he compiled hundreds of Kodachrome impressions. Only a couple dozen of the images later appeared in a drab brochure, and the project was largely abandoned. In the 1970s, Webb’s entire archive mysteriously vanished, only to be discovered decades later, scattered among various basements in Berkeley, CA. This book surveys his travels on the African continent, with nicely printed selections from his film that exemplify the tricky legacy of Webb’s lens. How to give meaning to the UN project’s disorienting bit of midcentury paternalistic boosterism? When viewed without enough analysis, its idealism looks poignantly naive. In this book, editors Bessire (African art history, Bates Coll.) and Nolan (history of photography, Maine Coll. of Art) have assembled interpretations of Webb’s work from several scholars and artists who take pains to unravel complicated responses to the images. In these textual interventions, clarity often yields to dreary pedantry, reflecting perhaps a basic ineffability of photos generated within such a colonialist structure. A long interview with Ghanaian photographer James Barnor reminds us that there were many African photographers working on the continent at the same time as Webb. Astonishingly, Webb became bored with Africa (he called Victoria Falls “a bunch of water flowing over rocks”), a sentiment that’s revealed in many of his workmanlike but haphazard compositions.
VERDICT Although it’s fascinating as a history, Webb’s body of work is artistically underwhelming; it resembles a really good Life magazine photo-essay, but it lacks the éclat of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Malick Sidibé. This narrative of Webb’s photos and their creation will engage primarily readers who are already interested in the medium and the message.
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