The BCMA, having sustained the foot traffic from scores of Hopperphiles this fall, is trading coastlines for skylines in a tribute to another Maine artist.
BCMA's newest exhibit, "After Atget: Todd Webb Photographs New York and Paris" opens today, featuring the photographs of Todd Webb (1905-2000) and his predecessor French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927).
A Detroit native, Webb first took up photography in the late 1930s. He studied under Ansel Adams in 1940 and worked as a navy photographer in the Philippines before entering the photographic community of New York in 1946.
When compared to the "touristic works" of his contemporaries, Webb's oeuvre is often described as "pictorial commentary."
Atget broke into photography in Paris during the last years of the 20th century. His works became well-known in artistic circles after his death in 1927.
Webb's photographs are black-and-white, framed in black, while Atget's frames and photos are sepia-toned.
"After Atget" features 60 photographs on loan from the Estate of Todd and Lucille Webb, and 10 Atget photographs from George Eastman House.
The featured Webb works are of cityscapes taken between 1946 and 1952.
The exhibit is an imagined meeting of sorts, highlighting the artistic kinship of Webb and the mentor he never met.
Diana Tuite, curator of the exhibition, said that the viewer is meant to glean "a sense of the strategies" common to both artists, especially insofar as each tried to preserve the spirit of their historical moment with their photography of urban centers.
When Abbott introduced Webb to her collection of Atget prints and negatives Webb remarked, "it seemed to me that I was doing the same thing in New York that Atget had done in Paris a half-century earlier."
This comment is included in the exhibit's catalogue, with an introduction by Britt Salvesen, curator of the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and an essay by Tuite.
Webb is also quoted describing his unique sense of urban anthropomorphism.
"Every window, doorway, street, building, sign has a human connotation," she said. "All are signs and symbols of people—a way of living—living in our time."
According to Tuite, this interest in the humanity of urban objects is one that Atget shared, but as a tradesman and archivist with little fine arts agenda.
"Looking at Webb's work between 1945 and 1952, we can see that he set out to be an observer in his own time, while Atget prioritized the remembrance and preservation of the past," writes Salvesen in her introduction.
Most striking in the work of both artists is the sense that they use their contemporary hands to grip a vanishing urban identity. There is a palpable tension between flux and normalcy in the post-war period that the exhibit highlights.
The state of a city is reflected in storefronts and weathered posters.The viewer is urged to read the photograph, and the text-heavy prints serve as their own caption.
In Webb's "123rd St., New York (Tailor is Dead)," the print centers on a handwritten sign stating, "Tailor is dead...but business will be carried on as usual by son."
Tuite characterized Webb's approach to New York City as "particularity."
At the same time, his portrayal of urban rejuvenation initiatives and slum clearing, under the direction of Robert Moses, retains a deliberate sense of what Tuite terms "ambiguity."
In 1949, when Webb began covering the effects of the Marshall Plan in Paris, his focus shifted.
Tuite said that Webb turned his lens toward the "vanishing of Paris" in the post-war years.
This leitmotif of vanishing is nowhere more apparent than in his treatment of corporeality.
Tuite said that there are "subtle things embedded in the photographs," and Webb confronts the "social and economic residues of the war"—residues that resemble the human figure.
The viewer is left to interpret statues of men and women receding into the shadows of alcoves and tarnished with patinas of mold. They file in rank with other urban detritus—slabs of stone and crumbling doorways.
These Parisian entranceways, which Tuite calls "sites of metaphor," are common to the works of both Atget and Webb.
The doorway becomes a portal to the past and future, as full of promise as a "Welcome Home" sign and as void as the gateway to a forgotten alleyway.
Despite his long metropolitan stints, Webb lived the end of his life in Maine, and his estate resides in Portland.
"After Atget" will be on view through January 29, 2012.