The City Within: Curating the Photos of Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

Sean Corcoran shares what it was like putting together the Museum of the City of New York’s latest exhibit of photographs from Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb.

“The exhibition endeavors to create a dialog between the two photographers’ work,” says Sean Corcoran, the Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York. Integrating Magnum Photographer Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb’s images into the same exhibit has been Mr. Corcoran’s latest endeavor. “Hopefully, the visitor will bounce back and forth between the work and see the visual and conceptual connections.” The two photographers are the focus of The City Within–an exhibit which promises to present a more integral look at Brooklyn’s communities not often shown in the glamorous series’ one might find on HBO. Opening on March 11, 2020, the exhibit is undoubtedly a reason to get excited as it presents a side of Brooklyn rarely conveyed in more mainstream channels.

Phoblographer: I’m a life long NYer, and so I adore the fact that Alex and Rebecca spent so much time documenting the other sides of Brooklyn that don’t get so much face-time as gentrified neighborhoods. What was the curation process like for the exhibit? I’m sure you poured over images, but I’m also sure you had a target audience in mind, right? I’m sure it also must have been quite a task as Rebecca photographed parks while Alex photographed everyday life on the streets, yes?

Sean: I’ve known both Alex and Rebecca for many years – we are neighbors in Brooklyn. I’d told them many times to let me know if they ever considered an extended project in New York I would be interested. So when they mentioned they were going to begin work in Brooklyn several years ago we began to look at the work on a regular basis. In truth, this process has evolved slowly over the course of several years…even as the work was being made. At its core, the Museum’s goals really matched up well with what the photographers were trying to do. The photographs provide a vivid sense of day to day life in the diverse communities of Kings County, from Park Slope to Bath Beach all through Alex’s distinctive lens. Rebecca’s photographs and the resulting selection in the exhibition provide a tranquil core – much like the parks themselves. We also included several poems Rebecca has written that reflect on the history of Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery.

Phoblographer: How does one even go about blending the work of the two photographers into the same exhibit? Should attendees expect some hard deviations, or does the exhibit feel like a united Brooklyn?

Sean: The exhibition endeavors to create a dialog between the two photographers’ work. On the exhibition’s title wall, we have included three pairs of photographs with one photograph by each artist that we felt speak with each other. From them on the work of each photographer is presented individually, but are positioned on opposing walls and in dialog with each other. Hopefully, the visitor will bounce back and forth between the work and see the visual and conceptual connections.

Phoblographer: Tell us about the people we see in Alex’s photos. They’re NYers of course, and these three communities have differences yet similarities. Are these evident in the exhibit?

Sean: We see the diversity of New York in these photographs – the West Indian J’ouvert celebrations in Crown Heights, a Mexican family celebrating Assumption Day in Bushwick, a Jewish family enjoying a leisurely afternoon in Bath Beach, and Muslim women pushing strollers through Borough Park. Some are in celebration, be it a block party or a religious holiday, and some are in the midst of going about their daily lives. All the photographs show how we live our lives largely in public spaces in the city.

Phoblographer: Are there any specific stories about some of the photographs that really stuck with you? Tell us about them.

Sean: Here are two stories that Alex has told me that we made into extended labels for the exhibition:

In August in Bushwick, I passed banners of the Virgin Mary—who rises to heaven on this holy day of Assumption—as well as men dressed as jaguars, an integral part of this Mexican tradition. Delighted to be invited into an apartment for tamales, I felt as if I’d entered a Mexican village, since most of the celebrants hailed from Piaxtla, a small town in the south-central state of Puebla, Mexico. It brought to mind another Assumption Day festival, one I’d photographed some thirty years before in the central Mexican city of Aguascalientes.

Alex Webb, Bushwick, Assumption Day, 2015

For decades working in the Caribbean, I often photographed various iterations of carnival, from Haiti’s Kanaval to the Dominican Republic’s Carnaval to Grenada’s J’Ouvert. It’s this latter festival that I’ve photographed in Brooklyn, a tradition that emerged during the time of slavery in Grenada and other parts of the Eastern Caribbean. Slaves, who were given freedom for a few hours in the dead of night, created their own alternative festival, one often mocking the world of their masters. In Brooklyn, J’Ouvert—a procession involving early morning revelers, some who cover their bodies with motor oil or paint— begins well before dawn near Grand Army Plaza, a kind of edgier prelude to the float-filled West Indian Day Parade.

Alex Webb, Crown Heights, J’Ouvert, 2015

Phoblographer: Rebecca is a former poet and, from the promo image that we see from her, she’s embracing a more creative and playful side than Alex’s documentary side. How is the museum embracing and showcasing this more playful side? Are they doing anything creative beyond just showing the images?

Sean: We have incorporated several poems that Rebecca has written in the exhibition – several are reproduced as extended labels that accompany specific photographs, but we have also created one large graphic map of the parks/Greenwood (about 10 x 12 feet) and have overlaid it with her poem “Battle Pass” (it is in the Aperture book if you have a copy) written out in her own dramatic handwriting.

The City Within is on view at the Museum of the City of New York from March 11th from 10am to 6pm each day.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.