Bruce Davidson, who celebrates his 80th birthday this month, is a major figure in American documentary photography, writes David Clark.
Bruce Davidson’s work is concerned, in his words, with ‘penetrating a world or a space that I fear, or that I don’t know, or to which I’m attracted’. In exploring his subjects, whether teenage gangs, circus performers or residents of inner-city ghettos, he has created his own distinctive style of documentary photography.
Davidson’s approach is to immerse himself in his subject, often for years at a time. His personal involvement with the often marginal social groups he photographs sets his work apart from those who dispassionately record a scene. In that sense, he says, he doesn’t consider himself a documentary photographer.
‘The term «documentary photographer» suggests you just stand back, that you’re not in the picture, you’re just recording,’ he told The New York Times in 2007. ‘I am in the picture, believe me. I am in the picture, but I’m not the picture.’
Born in a Chicago suburb, Davidson’s love of photography began at the age of ten when he visited a friend’s darkroom and was entranced by the magic of seeing images emerge on blank sheets of paper in the developing tray. By the time he was 16, photography had become a major part of his life. With his mother’s permission, he would regularly take the train into Chicago by himself and photograph people that interested him on the city streets.
Later, while studying at Yale, he photographed the university’s football team — not on the pitch, but behind the scenes. Some of the resulting pictures were published in Life magazine. His career was interrupted by a period of national service in the US Army, but by 1958 he had produced enough high-quality work to be invited to join the prestigious Magnum agency by
In the following years Davidson produced his first significant photo essays, including ‘Brooklyn Gang’, for which he spent a year photographing a gang of teenagers known as The Jokers. He also worked on ‘The Dwarf’, a series on Jimmy Armstrong, a clown in a travelling circus. Both these portfolios of work get beneath the subjects’ skin to produce powerful and emotive images, and could only have been created by someone with an intimate knowledge of their subject.
Although he has remained a member of Magnum for more than 50 years, Davidson’s approach has always been very different from that of his friend and mentor, Cartier-Bresson. ‘In my work, I’m not looking for one decisive moment,’ he wrote in the 2004 book Magnum Stories. ‘With me, it’s more like a series of decisive moments: they accumulate; they have a cumulative effect, where the complete essay adds up to more than the sum of its parts.’ Cl у In 1960, Davidson was commissioned by Queen magazine to spend two months travelling around England and Scotland to produce a portrait of the two countries at the time. His insightful pictures revealed a nation divided by rich and poor and by town and country, but some reflected the changing spirit of the new decade.
One of these images, showing a teenage girl holding a kitten (see page 38), has been singled out by Davidson as his favourite image. ‘I didn’t know where she had come from, and I didn’t get her name,’ he told The Guardian in 2007, ‘but there was something about that face, the hopefulness, positivity and openness to life — it was the new face of Britain.’
After returning to America, Davidson spent four years chronicling the Civi Rights movement as black Americans demonstrated against the widespread racial discrimination of the period through marches and civil resistance. After the project was completed, in 1967, Davidson was awarded the first grant for photography from the National Endowment for the Arts.
He used it to fund his next project, East 100th Street, which documented life in a notorious inner-city ghetto in New York’s East Harlem district. Davidson put aside his usual Leica cameras to shoot with a large-format 5x4in. The pictures he produced not only show the residents’ dignity, despite their poverty, but also Davidson’s deep respect for them.
Following an unsuccessful period in the late 1970s when Davidson tried his hand at movie-making in Hollywood, he began photographing a new subject: the New York subway. After years of neglect, the trains were badly in need of replacement and covered in graffiti, while crime on the subway was widespread.
Davidson used colour film to capture the ‘eerie, fluorescent darkness’ of the subway and its passengers. ‘I wanted to transform the subway from its dark, degrading and impersonal reality into images that open up our experience again to the colour, sensuality, and vitality of the individual souls that ride it each day,’ he explained.
During the past 30 years, Davidson has continued exploring new subjects in his distinctive, in-depth way. They have included a four-year project on the landscapes and visitors to New York’s Central Park and an assignment from Esquire magazine in 2004 that focused on diners at the famous Katz’s Delicatessen in New York (see photo above).
Davidson lives in New York with his wife, Emily, and continues to accept editorial photography assignments. ‘What drives me,’ he wrote in Magnum Stories, ‘is an awareness of the essential loneliness of man — we are alone when we’re born, we’re alone when we die — and it’s that fundamental quality of isolation, together with feelings of love, that compels me to use the camera the way I do.’