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For over two decades, photographer William T. Webb Jr. helped make even D.C. Public Schools look good.
It could have been the standard celebrity shot: On a crisp day in 1976, a group of smiling kids gathered around Claudiaaka Lady BirdJohnson to commemorate her local beautification project, the yearslong program she had initiated to administer the planting of thousands of tulips and daffodils all over the nation’s capital.
Through the lens of another photographer, the scene might have become a glorified image of a smartly dressed Lady Bird, standing in the midst of some adoring schoolgirls right there on the banks of the Potomac River in a park named for her husband. It could have been a lovely shot, capturing all the grace and accomplishment of one distinguished woman.
But D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) photographer William T. Webb Jr. had eyes for a different scene that day. In Webb’s photograph, which currently hangs on a wall at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Johnson doesn’t stand smiling coolly, surrounded by starstruck schoolgirls. Instead, she hunches slightly forward, her arms outstretched in a desperate attempt to organize the preteens. Her mouth streaks across her face in a wide, open grimace, as if she were blurting out orders that no one was heeding. Alas, the illustrious Lady Bird looks much more like a screeching hawk.
Not that her appearance bothers Webb. “It’s one of my favorites,” says the white-haired 72-year-old. “Not because of her. I just love the childrenthe way they’re involved and interested.”
The four girls in the photo are certainly dressed for the part, wearing corduroy jumpers and plaid dresses, their hair combed into neat braids or pigtails. But they do not offer sweet, blank smiles. Instead, they stand glaring back at the crowd, each of them with a furrowed brow or pursed lips, fascinated with what’s happening around them. They appear more interested in looking than in being looked at.
Those are exactly the sort of expressions Webb had hoped to capturein this photo and during his long career as DCPS photographer. A former teacher with DCPS, Webb worked for 23 years as the school system’s photographer before retiring in 1991. In
that role, he became a regular audience member at thousands of school events, from dance performances to science fairs to everyday recesses.
Fifty-one of Webb’s works are now on display at the Sumner School, on 17th Street NW. It is a motley collection spanning several decades. But unlike many photos associated with DCPS, these do not present the picture of the troubled school system that the city has grown so accustomed to. In Webb’s shots, pimple-faced kids toil under the hood of a car at a local vocational school, young athletes glide across the stage during a dance performance, and Afro-sporting students beam gleefully after receiving awards. His photos offer occasional shots of local and national celebritiessuch as Johnson, school activist and former D.C. Councilmember Hilda H.M. Mason, and Maya Angelou. But most center on kids of all ages succeeding in a school system not known for success. It’s a rare glimpse at local school experiences that most people overlook, says Webb.
“[In my photos, I was] looking always for the same thing,” says Webb. “[I was] looking for the intensity of the experience, the interest of whatever [students] were doing….Expressionthat to me was everything.”
Before Webb was a teacher and the official school photographer, he was a kid making his way through the District’s school system. A District native, Webb grew up in a house on 42nd Street NW and attended the neighborhood public schools: Bernard Janney Elementary, Alice Deal Junior High, and Woodrow Wilson Senior High.
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His grandmother and mother were both respected public-school teachers in the District. (Ruth K. Webb Elementary was named for his mother.) And though the young Webb was fascinated with his father’s career as a civil engineer, he knew from a young age that he wanted to be a teacher. “I was close to both my parents, but I was particularly close to my mother,” he says.
It was his mother who first encouraged Webb to take up photography. Before and after his own school day, Webb often visited his mother’s classroom at Hardy Elementary on Foxhall Road NW. When he was about 12 or 13, his mother asked him to take pictures of her classes and other activities going on at Hardy. Webb consented. He borrowed a cameraan Argus C-3from his mother’s school and began improvising his way through the photographic process, first snapping photos of students in his mom’s classroom and then wandering the halls to seek out other kids and adults. Before long, he was hooked, moving outside of his mother’s school to take photos of nearly anything he could: kids in the neighborhood, friends’ pets, building sites his father was working on.
Although he enjoyed a comfortable middle-class upbringing, Webb was not a carefree kid. At age 11, he suffered a case of rheumatic heart fever that left him with lifelong kidney and heart problems. But Webb didn’t let his occasional weakness keep him from his growing passion for photography. “I just loved to see images,” he says.
Webb was learning plenty about how to fill up rolls of film, but he still knew little about how to turn negatives into actual photographs. Luckily, he came across another young boy in the neighborhood, Ralph Worth, who had a similar fascination with photographyand a darkroom in his basement.
So after school and on weekends, Webb would gather up his film, walk the two blocks to his new friend’s house, and spend hours in the damp basement, learning how to mix developing chemicals and watching his images take form in the trays of fluid laid out before him.
Webb learned most of what he knows about his medium by chatting up any photographer he encountered, reading whatever he could find about the subject, and guessing his way through the rest. When he was a teenager, for instance, he noticed that many of the photographs he saw of black children and adults failed to show the details of their faces. Webb did some reading and asked other photographers how to avoid similar problems in his own works, learning how to adjust the lens opening and shutter speed to get the accurate contrast. Then he practiced taking photos of his family’s African-American maid and her two children.
“Most people in that day and age weren’t taking pictures of black children. For those that were, it just seems that they somehow would not get the balance of lightness and darkness in a way that was not too contrasty,” says Webb.
“So I learned how to do that.” It was a skill that would help immensely when he became the photographer for a predominantly black school system.
Once Webb was attending Wilson’s Teacher College in the District to prepare for his career, he found that he had less time to devote to his photo-taking hobby. But when he finally started teaching fourth grade at John Burroughs Elementary, in 1952, the work wasn’t as exciting as he expected. “I thought maybe it was too easy,” he recalls. On a whim, he started taking photos again, hoping to rekindle some of his passion for his students and the classroom. It worked. From that day on, rarely a school day went by when Webb’s camera wasn’t close at hand. Colleagues recall that Webb’s photography equipment seemed simply another of his appendages.
“All I know is I ended up crawling around on the floor, up on ladders,” says Webb, laughing. “I knew the teaching thing was going to be good for a while, but now I was really back into photography.”
The teaching thing, as it turns out, lasted for 16 years, until 1968. After a short stint as an administrator at Burroughs Elementary and a brief return to teaching, Webb decided that he wanted to move on to something new, something related to photography.
He took a position in the curriculum department at DCPS headquarters, 415 12th St. NW. There, he helped develop new materials for District students and also servedunofficially at firstas the photographer for the school system, meaning he was sent out to capture images at school events all over the city. Webb was happy with the change. He missed the classroom and loved doing photography, and his new role kept him in close contact with students.
“Somebody would say, ‘Bill, go over to What’s-His-Name School. They’re having a program,’” recalls Webb. “Nobody ever gave me directions [beyond that], because they knew better.”
Webb says that he took thousands of pictures every year, from choir performances to vocational-education classes to candid classroom shots. Of those, he printed maybe 500 a year. He used most of them to decorate bulletin boards at the 12th Street offices. Webb replaced the photos on the boards weekly, so they became a constantly changing kaleidoscope of images that greeted visitors when they came to the system’s headquarters. Other photographs were used in the superintendent’s newsletters or other school publications, as well as for fliers for several national associations.
The ’60s and early ’70s were turbulent times in the District, and local schools did not escape the tumult. Students, parents, and teachers were still adjusting to recently integrated schools. Like many urban school districts, D.C.’s was struggling with a shortage of funds, aging buildings, and falling test scores.
Webb saw all of this up close. But while local newspapers were running photographs of each new superintendent or of squabbling school-board members, Webb tried a more positive approach, choosing instead to focus on students toiling away in the classrooms, or excelling in school competitions, or gracing high school stages.
“He photographed almost every Superintendent. But he tended to concentrate on the people who held the system togetherthe teachers, the students and often the principals,” friend and former DCPS colleague Elio Gasperetti wrote in a brochure for Webb’s show at the Sumner.
In the early ’70s, Webb and some co-workers informally lobbied members of the D.C. Board of Education to start a communications office that would work to reshape public image. The office opened in 1975, and Webb became a key member of its staff, using his work to advance the new and improved look of the system.
“No one ever talks about the positive side of schools,” recalls Webb. “We really felt there needed to be an image polishing.”
A communications office couldn’t solve all of the schools’ problems, of courseand there were plenty more after the new division opened. But Webb’s photos offer at least a glimpse of students in some of their best moments. And some say that the images have left a lasting impression.
“He photographed any child doing anything and tried to make that child or that student look good,” recalls longtime friend and former DCPS teacher and principal Mary Thompson. “He would catch students doing their best, rather than the reverse, as many people did.”
“You could see the expression on children’s faces when the light turned on in their brain,” says Sylvia Shugrue, another former teacher. “He had a way of capturing children learning.”
Webb couldn’t avoid all controversy, but he tried to handle each situation with delicacy and respect, says Gasperetti. A white man in a mainly black school system, he seemed unconcerned with race. (About integration, Webb says: “[Students] were black, and they were white, and there they were.”) Gasperetti recalls that Webb was generally composed as he went about his duties but temporarily lost his cool during one slide-show presentation at a local high school in the ’80s: “I remember the kids were being unruly, and [Webb] said, ‘Act like gentlemen.’ And one kida young, African-American boysaid, ‘You mean, act like white people?’ And Bill got so mad. He started saying, ‘Are you telling me black people don’t behave like gentlemen?’ He got a little upset at that.”
Webb shrugs off the outburst. “I had some words here and there. Let’s just leave it at that,” he says with a grin. Looking at him, it is hard to imagine him ever upset. In his tweed jacket, he is the image of a distinguished professor. But his face spreads frequently into a soft, aw-shucks grin. He is friendly and relaxed and loves to tell stories,
as he always has. But he can become a bit shy when talking about his past accomplishments and is seemingly more comfortable when the conversation turns away from his career.
We are seated in Webb’s apartment in Northwest D.C. His wife, Carmela Duque Webb, flits about the room, checking in on the conversation and her husband’s well-being. Webb’s health continues to trouble him. In 1993, he had major heart surgery. He’s recovering from a case of pneumonia. He takes few pictures now, because he often doesn’t feel up to it. He’s also developed an allergy to some of the developing chemicals.
But even today, Webb prefers to take a glass-half-full approach to things. After his rheumatic heart fever at age 11, doctors didn’t think he’d live past 35, so his condition now is impressive, he says. His wife, a native of Ecuador, adds: “My family calls himwhat’s this?’a cat with nine lives.’”
These days, Webb spends most of his time relaxing with his wife and enjoying classical music. The two have no children of their own. “I had 35 each year,” explains Webb. “That’s the thing that has saved me, saved my life. I just loved being around the kids, shooting the breeze.” CP
Webb’s works are on display at the Sumner School to Jan. 7, 2002. For more information, call (202) 442-6051.