PORTLAND, Maine — “Outside the Frame: Todd Webb in Africa” is, in effect, three shows. One is largely visual, comprising nearly 60 photographs taken by Webb in 1958 during five months he spent in Africa on assignment for the United Nations, as well as some related ephemera and a few images by other photographers. That show is mostly in color.
Another is verbal, consisting of a notably didactic and hectoring wall text. That show is resolutely in black and white. The third is intellectual and implicit, encompassing the complexities of historical incomprehension that characterize the other two.
“Outside the Frame,” which was organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, runs through June 18 at the Portland Museum of Art.
Webb (1905-2000) lived a bracingly varied life before coming to photography. He worked in a bank in his native Detroit; as a gold prospector, then fire ranger, out West; then, back in Detroit, for Chrysler. A fellow worker for the auto manufacturer was another future photographer, Harry Callahan. The two became friends.
Webb’s best work is about the interplay of persons and place: New York, Paris, but also a particular person, Georgia O’Keeffe, in a less-populated place, New Mexico. An assignment from the United Nations in 1957 to photograph the General Assembly led to his being sent to Africa a year later.
This was a momentous period. The European colonization of Africa was ending or would soon do so. Two years later, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan would deliver his “Wind of Change” speech. The idea was for Webb to record this transformation as it was taking place. He visited no fewer than nine countries — present-day Ghana, Togo, Sudan, Somalia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya — with an implicit brief of being forward-looking and positive. The title of the UN-produced brochure in which Webb’s photographs would appear (only 22, out of nearly 2,000 negatives exposed) was ‘’A Continent Awakes.”
Such an upbeat view of a post-colonial future assumed not just the existence of a colonial past but its acceptance. This is one meaning of “Outside the Frame,” how these photographs, their frequent beauty and distinctiveness notwithstanding, fail to offer any sort of larger historical or social context.
That is a serious omission. The wall texts strive to compensate for that lack of context. Unfortunately, they do so with a relentlessness and vehemence that become counter-productive. The European colonization of Africa in the final decades of the 19th century was carried out, we’re informed, “at a wildly exponential rate.” “Exponential” would appear to have a different meaning in museum circles from what it does in mathematics. A failed search for petroleum by the Sinclair Oil Corporation qualifies as “a devastating reminder of the fragility of the earth [sic] in the face of virulent greed.” Perhaps greed without virulence is less objectionable. Shorts, a collar shirt, and rolled-up sleeves are “a distinctly colonial uniform.”
In fairness, high-minded curatorial reductiveness is becoming more rule than exception. Two examples from last fall would be the Peabody Essex Museum’s “Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China” and the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Life Magazine and the Power of Photography.”
With “Outside the Frame,” this approach gives rise to two ironies. The first is that the explanatory text exhibits its own failure to go outside the frame. There’s no mention of the Cold War, a key factor in decolonization — and, as it happens, a different sort of stick to smack the West with. It was competition with the Soviets, far more than enlightened policies, or even economic calculation, that helped drive the end of empire.
Nor is there any mention of “The Family of Man,” the enormously influential 1955 Museum of Modern Art photography exhibition. Webb was among the nearly 300 photographers with work in it. That show propagated a muscularly humanist, blandly nondenominational conception of the medium, one visible in Webb’s African work. It would not be inaccurate to describe these photographs as imperialism with a human face. But this particular version of imperialism is cultural and owes far more to MoMA than to men in distinctly colonial uniform.
So Webb was ill suited to his assignment, having had no experience of Africa. Yet here’s the other irony: His inexperience could also be an advantage. He brought a very fresh set of eyes to his subject. Again and again, one can feel Webb’s excitement and pleasure in recording what he’s seeing. He demonstrates an alertness to cultural collision and incongruity. That alertness has just as much to do with subversion as celebration, if not more.
Standing alone in a clearing, a Ghanaian man stares at the camera as he sprays pesticides into dense vegetation. It’s a tiny, toxic echo of Conrad’s astonishing epitome of imperialist futility in “Heart of Darkness”: a French battleship “firing into a continent.” To be sure, some now consider Conrad politically problematic. But you take his point, and Webb might be seen to have, too.
Or there’s the arresting sight of an attendant at a Texaco station in Togo. The red gas pump, the Texaco logos, the display of motor oil cans (all of them bearing the Texaco logo, of course) present Western imperialism in triplicate: cultural and economic as well as political. Presumably, it’s happenstance that that shade of Texaco red chimes with the suit worn by a man walking in Mogadishu, but serendipitous commentary is commentary nonetheless.
Most striking of all is the image of a man in what is now Tanzania pushing a lawn mower over a plot of green that already looks billiard-table smooth. Behind him are various pylons, cables, and other pieces of power-station equipment. Between him and us is a chain-link fence. If this photograph doesn’t show a grasp of how deeply complex and troubling the situation of Africa and Africans was in 1958, it’s hard to imagine another that might.
Visitors to the Webb show should pause by the entrance. A monitor shows a video that consists of interviews with 16 immigrants now living in the Portland area. They talk about their African past and American present. The stories they tell are moving and absorbing and very much outside any frame.
OUTSIDE THE FRAME: Todd Webb in Africa
At Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through June 18. 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.