In the late 1950s, Todd Webb toured Africa – and captured a new spirit as the shackles of colonialism were cast off. Missing for decades, his extraordinary photographs are finally being published
Betsy Evans Hunt wasn’t sure what to expect when, in 2015, she descended a staircase into a California basement. Her journey, thousands of miles from her home in Portland, Maine, had been decades in the planning, but what she was about to discover, in this part cat-and-mouse, part detective story was more than she’d ever hoped to find.
Evans Hunt first met the American photographer Todd Webb at a gallery she ran in the late 1980s. She lived and breathed photography, and her new friend did, too. Their relationship quickly developed into something akin to family: Evans Hunt became like a daughter to Webb and his wife, Lucille, who didn’t have kids.
Born in Detroit in 1905, to a family of Quakers, Webb worked as a banker until the 1929 crash when, left with nothing, he ventured west to pan for gold. On his return to Michigan in 1934, Webb took a job at Chrysler. He joined the company’s amateur camera club, where he struck up a friendship with Harry Callahan, who became a celebrated photographer – and Webb’s lifelong friend.
Evans Hunt fell in love with Webb’s stories: of being tutored by Ansel Adams; impressing Alfred Stieglitz; days spent bonding with Georgia O’Keefe. Webb’s assignments for Standard Oil took him across the US and to Paris, where he later lived. He worked for the United Nations and the Marshall Plan before moving back to America. In 1956, he was awarded a Guggenheim scholarship to document life in the United States by travelling across the country on foot. Evans Hunt learned that a run-in with a dealer had separated Webb from much of his life’s work.
With Webb’s blessing – through his later years and after his death – she embarked on a mission: to manage what remained of his estate, and to track down the photographs he lost. Evans Hunt’s detective work led her to a group of investors on the west coast, then in possession of what for so long had been missing. And there, underneath one of their homes in California’s Oakland Hills – packed away in five large steamer trunks – she saw Webb’s lost archive for the first time. After three trips, and hours of negotiations, the boxes were in Evans Hunt’s hands.
“It wasn’t until I got everything back to our office in Maine that we could start to really comprehend it all,” she says five years later. “Among the vintage prints, memorabilia and negatives were several large envelopes, each labelled ‘Africa, 1958’.”
For three days, Evans Hunt and her assistant scanned in these negatives, glued to their computers. Inside the envelopes were images Webb had taken on a five-month commission to what had then been eight African nations: today Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Togo.
Webb had been sent by the United Nations to document industry, technology and modernisation in a continent in transition. He returned with portraits, burgeoning urban centres and natural landscapes; the dregs of colonialism and the first signs of independence captured in vivid colour, as the shackles of empire were finally cast off.
Webb left New York for what was then Lomé, Togoland, on 11 April 1958 via London: he landed in what is today the Gambia before travelling over land to his first stop – Togoland, now Togo. Here, that same month, he witnessed the nation’s earliest elections, under UN supervision. After decades of colonial rule, its citizens were free to vote.
“A day of great surprise and rejoicing,” Webb wrote in his journal. “The opposition has won a landslide victory and now Togo is virtually free,” Aside from a few, he noted, the country was in ecstasy: “The cry of ablode! [freedom] rings in the streets.”
May was spent in Sudan and Ghana, with him arriving by June in today’s Somalia. Over his two weeks in the capital Mogadishu, Webb shot oil harbours, daily life and cityscapes that still feel contemporary. “I liked Somalia,” he wrote, “made friends – fleeting ones – but firm – and I regret the fleetingness and the hopelessness of never seeing them again.”
From there, Webb flew to Nairobi, before his whistle-stop tour of Zambia and Zimbabwe, then referred to as Northern and Southern Rhodesia. Most of July was spent in Tanzania: his photographs of it a mixture of lush landscapes, colonial structures, and some uncomfortable stares. Independence would be won there just three years later.
In total, Webb spent five months journeying through the continent, taking approximately 2,000 photographs along the way.
“I’m no expert,” Evans Hunt says, “but I knew right away these images were something special. They felt so much more modern than the ethnographic National Geographic-style pictures other American photographers at the time were taking in Africa.” She picked up the phone and called friend Aimée Bessire, an Africanist art historian at Bates, a liberal arts college just upstate. Bessire headed down to Portland right away.
“I was just so excited when I arrived at the archive,” says Bessire. “I teach African photography as a subject, and had never seen images from that era quite like them: his commission went against the grain of the usual romanticised and mythologised images of Africa you would otherwise see from the late 1950s.” Both the colours and the content blew her away.
Together with Erin Hyde Nolan – a visiting assistant professor at Maine College of Art – Bessire has authored and curated Todd Webb in Africa: Outside the Frame, a book which for the first time showcases the collection. The United Nations only ever used a handful of Webb’s pictures: 22 black-and-white images were printed in a brochure to help newspaper editors better understand “the changing face of Africa”.
In the book, excerpts from Webb’s meticulously kept journal sit alongside his pictures, but its authors have been careful to contextualise the work, too. “We’ve thought a lot,” says Bessire, “about how and why the UN chose Todd – a white American who had never previously been to any part of Africa – to photograph this work, when there were incredibly competent and well-known photographers from the continent they could have called on.”
Included in the book is an interview with James Barnor, a London-based Ghanaian photographer who at the time of Webb’s trip had a thriving studio in Accra. “I would have taken the same type of pictures as Webb,” Barnor explains diplomatically, “except that perhaps I might have been able to go to places he couldn’t.”
Bessire says: “I don’t want to mythologise Todd’s work. The photographs are beautiful, but there are layers of meaning.”
In his journals from the assignment, Webb writes of his discomfort at the privileges his whiteness affords him, sentiments he expressed during trips through southern states in the US at the height of segregation, when he wrote deploringly of the “white supremacy” he witnessed first-hand. Despite Webb’s racial consciousness, this book’s authors are determined to remind readers that it is still a white man who pointed the lens. These images, however compelling, were taken by an outsider looking in.
“These images also document the overt and lasting trauma of the colonial area,” says Hyde Nolan. “This is why we collaborated with authors, scholars, poets and asked them to respond to the images in a way that allowed a contemporary, decolonising perspective.”
Alongside the book, the Minneapolis Institute of Art will hold an exhibition due to open this month, which – pandemic allowing – will travel to other venues before reaching the National Museum of Tanzania in December.
For Evans Hunt, though, the project of a lifetime continues. She has separated Webb’s work into five key strands: New York, Paris and Africa; images born from his friendship with Georgia O’Keeffe and then his walks across the US. For each she wants to produce a photobook and exhibition, to help secure his lasting legacy. Ideally, she’ll have all this wrapped up by the time she hits 70, and so far it’s going better than she could have ever expected: slowly but surely, the photography world is learning to appreciate him, too, as the puzzle of his work is finally pieced back together.