1950s America as Seen by Robert Frank & Todd Webb, with Lisa Volpe & Bill Shapiro11/16/2023
1950s America proved fertile ground for photographers Robert Frank and Todd Webb, who both received Guggenheim Foundation grants to traverse the country in 1955 and record their respective visions. While Frank’s resulting book, The Americans, eventually made him a legend, Webb’s photographs remained unpublished, and were all but lost to history due to a 1970s-era business deal gone bad.
The saga of Webb’s unaccounted-for archive and its eventual recovery is one of the juicier tidbits from today’s show, which focuses on the long-awaited opportunity to compare, contrast, and rediscover Frank and Webb’s respective visions from their travels in the exhibition America and Other Myths.
Joining us in this discussion are Lisa Volpe, photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Bill Shapiro, former Life magazine editor-in-chief. Journey back to the Nifty Fifties astride these two photographers as we examine how two distinct proposals to discover America at mid-century evolved along the open road and in the context of the era’s social tenure.
In the words of Lisa Volpe, “They both saw the same social ills playing out in American culture, they just talked about them differently.”
Above photograph © The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation
Guests: Lisa Volpe & Bill Shapiro
- 3:19: The genesis for the exhibit America and Other Myths, plus placing Frank and Webb’s journeys in the context of mid-century America, the 1955 debut of MOMA’s Family of Man exhibition, and the overarching vision of Life magazine.
- 8:50: Todd Webb’s 3,000-page daily journal, the insights his writing provides, and his sponsorship arrangement with LIFE magazine. Plus, Robert Frank’s unique method of photo editing, discarding entire chunks of raw film before making contact sheets.
- 15:32: The photographers’ differing methods of transport—Frank by car and Webb on foot, by bicycle, river skiff, or motor bike—and the relationship to Webb’s methodical plan vs. Frank’s restless energy.
- 21:55: The quantity of each photographer’s output—Frank’s more than 27,000 frames vs. Webb’s approximately 10,000 frames—and how each man’s personality influenced his approach, which influenced his style.
- 27:25: The cameras each man used on their Guggenheim trips: Frank’s Leica and Webb’s three cameras—two Leicas and a Rolleiflex.
- 33:57: Episode Break
- 34:48: Comparing and contrasting Frank and Webb’s pictures in the exhibition design and catalog for America and Other Myths.
- 38:18: How Frank and Webb’s respective nationalities, upbringing, and personalities influenced their artistic visions and photographic methods.
- 43:42: The two photographers’ divergent styles, the public response to their pictures, Frank’s resulting book The Americans, and his connection to the Beat Generation
- 47:59: Todd Webb’s 1976 sale of his archive to unscrupulous gallerists, a bad deal Robert Frank made with the same people, and even more intrigue!
- 1:01:30: Final thoughts about Frank and Webb’s respective visual critiques of 1950s America, and the affect these trips had on each man’s vision.
Lisa Volpe is the Associate Curator, Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Before arriving in Houston, she was the Curator of the Wichita Art Museum where she oversaw all areas of the museum’s collection. Additionally, she held various curatorial roles at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA), and fellowships at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Bill Shapiro is the former Editor-in-Chief of LIFE magazine and the founding Editor-in-Chief of LIFE.com. He has written about photography for the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, The Atlantic, among others, and helps photographers create their photo books. He is the co-author of Gus & Me, the best-selling children’s book he co-wrote with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. On Instagram, he’s @billshapiro where, every Friday (more or less) he posts about under-the-radar photographers. Shapiro lives in Taos, New Mexico.
America and Other Myths Exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: https://www.mfah.org/
America and Other Myths exhibition catalog: https://yalebooks.yale.edu/
Robert Frank Archive at the MFAH: https://www.mfah.org/films/robert-frank-collection
June Leaf & Robert Frank Foundation Website: https://leaffrankfoundation.org/
Todd Webb Archive: https://www.toddwebbarchive.com/news-events
Blind Magazine articles by Bill Shapiro:
Robert Frank film footage from Blind Magazine: https://www.blind-magazine.com/
Bill Shapiro Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/billshapiro/
Todd Webb in Africa episode on the B&H Photography Podcast: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/podcasts/
Host: Allan Weitz
Senior Creative Producer: Jill Waterman
Senior Producer: Mike Weinstein
Executive Producer: Shawn C Steiner