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 Webb’s well-known images of the streets of New York and Paris. The new book Todd Webb in Africa (Thames & Hudson, January 26, 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 book’s Introduction, co-authors Aimée Bessire and Erin Hyde Nolan write that “Todd Webb in Africa: Outside the Frame investigates the motivations and complicated historical narratives embedded within Webb’s photographs, mining a complex body of work with an intersectional mindset. Throughout the book, the authors acknowledge Webb’s practices as ones that were informed by American understandings of African nations, cultures, and histories—all 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 Webb’s photographic series within their colonial context and from today’s temporal distance.”
The book also features essays by African and American scholars, artists, historians, photographers, and writers who engage with Webb’s 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 countries—including their national independence and entrenched imperialism.
This compelling photographic journey by one of the twentieth century’s great photographers provides a singular opportunity to re-examine a critical moment in history—a time when African independence movements were themselves paralleled by the Civil Rights movement in America.
EXHIBITION: Todd Webb in Africa accompanies a touring exhibition of Webb’s photographs, scheduled to first open at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in early 2021.
Todd Webb in Africa : Outside the Frame
Published by Thames & Hudson
256 pp | 203 illustrations
Thames & Hudson Book Page
The Todd Webb Archive