Todd Webb, the extraordinary 20th century American photographer, died two weeks before I took my first daily newspaper job at The Times Record in Brunswick. Until shortly before, he’d lived nearby in Bath and his optimistic residue was still floating over the midcoast as I began to crank the film advance on my own career.
That was the spring of 2000 and people talked about Todd and his wife, Lucille, wherever I went. They all told me I would have liked him. The Webbs seemed to leave a trail of friends wherever they went.
A couple weeks ago, my friend, and fellow motorcyclist, Ray Sapirstein, invited me to visit the Todd Webb photographic archive in Portland. It was started in 2008, after Lucille died, by Betsy Evans Hunt, a gallery owner and their surrogate daughter.
“My purpose is to elevate Todd’s work to, as I term it, ‘The Pantheon’ where I believe he belongs,” Hunt said in an office stuffed with Webb’s non-commercial prints and negatives.
The archive is dedicated to scholarly research and promotion of Todd Webb’s considerable photographic legacy. It was a real treat to get a tour and up close look at his work.
To tell you more about the man, I’m turning this blog over to the man who gave me my start in the business. He was my first boss and mentor, I owe everything to him: former Managing Editor of The Times Record, James McCarthy.
I came to know Todd Webb in the early and mid-1980s, first through his photographs, which I saw in a couple of exhibitions held in Portland.
His images celebrated those scenes we invariably see out of the corner of our eyes, as we’re walking from Point A to Point B, and which we rarely stop to appreciate. It was obvious to me that Todd made a point of stopping to appreciate those moments and that his skills as a photographer were more than up to the challenge of helping others appreciate the beauty that surrounds us if we only took the time to truly see it.
A few years later, I was living in Bath and occasionally would notice a white-haired gentleman walking with his wife in neighborhoods with these elegant 19th Century homes set off by lilac bushes and well-tended flower gardens. I inquired about them and my neighbor knew immediately who I was talking about, describing them as “the couple who always walk together”: Todd and Lucille Webb.
I never intruded on those walks, and might well have never gotten to know Todd and Lucille if not for my work as a reporter and editor at The Times Record.
Occasionally, we’d get press releases about some exhibition featuring Todd’s work, or the publication of several books of his images that came out in the early 1990s. I found Todd’s name in a phone book and called him to see if he’d agree to be interviewed for a story tied to those events. He always graciously accepted.
I’ll never forget that first interview: He suggested we meet at their house on North Street for lunch. When I arrived, I was amazed to see Todd at the stove, stirring a large pot of Creole crab gumbo. It was delicious … a five-star dinner that to this day is the best gumbo I’ve ever had.
After the lunch, Todd showed me his darkroom set up in a spare bathroom; it was as makeshift as any darkroom I’ve ever set up for myself. We went into a front room, where I immediately noticed an original Georgia O’Keeffe watercolor and a large whitened cow’s skull hanging nearby that I assumed she had given Todd and Lucille.
Todd acknowledged they had been close friends of “O’Keeffe,” as he called her, and then he told me the story of how she had enlisted him to help her bury a beloved chow that had just died and how it probably weighed more than 100 pounds and that by the time she found exactly the right spot to dig the grave he was soaked in sweat from carrying it across the gravelly New Mexico landscape. There was a kind of ‘gee whiz’ quality to his story, which I soon discovered was very much part of Todd’s persona.
In that interview and others, Todd never put on airs that he thought of himself as a “great photographer.”
Here’s a guy who was friends with Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, who knew Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Berenice Abbott and Harry Callahan, among others; who had photographed Bertolt Brecht and Ira Gershwin, among others; who’d been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships to follow the trails of the Gold Rush era across the American West when he was in his 50s; who was still photographing in his 80s, having been to Venice a couple of times. But he chose to describe himself, simply, as “the guy who HAD to photograph” … for Todd, that was the truest statement he could make about himself, and any other superlatives would have to come from others.
At the time, I was then in my early 40s and was beginning to realize the vanity of my early 20s sense of myself that “some day, some way” I would gain some recognition for my photography. By example and by sharing his own philosophy of living so freely, Todd freed me from such self-destructive and ultimately (for me at least) not useful thoughts.
Since the early 1990s, I’ve consciously placed myself in the Todd Webb camp of just doing my work for the love of it, being as true as I can to my feelings about my subjects and the unique qualities of photography as an expressive medium, and not worry about anything else.
I also revised my notion of what “old age” is all about: Todd and Lucille, even in their 90s, were an incredibly alive and engaging couple. Good role models as I find myself now on the other side of 60. In a very real way, Todd Webb became my personal patron saint for late-bloomers. I’ve learned a lot from looking deeply at his incredible photographs and from the stories he shared. I feel blessed to have known Todd and Lucille during that period of my life.
– James McCarthy