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SURVEY - Bruce Davidson, by Thomas Werner

Over the next few weeks we will be posting articles from the first print issues of IRK Magazine. The first is an interview with legendary Photographer Bruce Davidson by IRK Editor at Large, Thomas Werner @Thomaswernerprojects. All photographs © Bruce Davidson


Bruce Davidson

“One attribute is that I stay longer. I don’t just take a picture and run away. I’m there, I’m inside a world.”

It is a beautiful autumn day as we sit comfortably in Bruce Davidson’s New York apartment discussing his newest book Survey, an illustration of a personal odyssey defined by poignant cultural moments and the evolution of the photographer as an individual. As we talk it is easy to understand how Bruce’s subjects have given him their trust and intimate access to their lives. He is disarmingly honest, and earnest in his belief in the power of photography to raise awareness and address social change. There is a humanity in Davidson’s photography that is moving, a compassion framed within his beautifully articulated black and white images that asks us to not only delve deeper into the lives of those he represents, but to question our own role in the social histories that unfold before us.

Beginning with John and Kate Wall, in Patagonia, Arizona, and ending with the Nature of Los Angeles Survey follows the trajectory of the photographer’s career from 1955 to 2013. This legendary body of work is punctuated by seminal photographic essays such as; Brooklyn Gang, 1959; The Civil Rights Movement, 1961-1965; Los Angeles, 1964; East 100th Street, Spanish Harlem, New York, 1966-1968. Each series represents a shift in Davidson’s perspective as with every project he became increasingly sensitized to the plight of those marginalized, exploited, or living on the edges of society.

Every body of work that I’ve exposed myself to is different. What I was able to absorb from Brooklyn Gang was quite different than what I felt at East 100th Street. Things change, and as they change so does your understanding of life.”

The 1959 series Brooklyn Gang focuses on The Jokers, a group of 15, 16 and 17 year olds coming of age on the streets of Brooklyn. Introduced to the gang by a local social worker, Bruce spent the majority of that year hanging out with the teens as they traversed the borough, spending time at the local diner, evening dances, on street corners and Long Island beaches. A teenager himself he was accepted into the gang, documenting their daily routine. “I stayed pretty much to what the teenagers were going to do. They went to Coney Island, I went to Coney Island.”, he noted. Though more observational than social commentary the resulting photographs are a beautiful homage to the self importance and insecurity of youth. It is a touching series that illustrates the oft imagined glamour of self destruction during the gang’s search for personal relevance and a place in a society in which they frequently felt ignored. It was not until years later when Davidson’s wife interviewed the gang’s former leader that he learned the boy’s impoverished mother had seven children, feeding them oatmeal three or four times a day. While these personal narratives were not integral to Brooklyn Gang, they became increasing apparent in subsequent series such as The Civil Right’s Movement and East 100th Street, Spanish Harlem.

“In 1964 I was kind of an angry young man, so the relationship between the cars, and the sidewalk, and the alienating effect of that place affected me at that time. It’s quite different now, but then I could only react to my senses.“

As a young Magnum photographer Davidson spent 1961 to 1965 photographing the civil rights movement, taking a break in 1964 to document Los Angeles and its emerging car culture. This was the era of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac, and the iconic book On The Road. Coming from the crowded streets of New York, Davidson found the empty sidewalks of Los Angeles depressing. There is a palatable distance in these photographs that is not apparent in his other bodies of work. The photographer explained, “I couldn’t make contact with anybody, with people. The only thing I could make contact with was an automobile. So there I was alienated. I came from New York City where there were people everywhere all time of day and night, people on the street, people on the sidewalk, people in buildings and houses, I felt part of that. But I didn’t feel part of anything in Los Angeles at that time.” As with Brooklyn Gang the themes of inclusion and alienation are evident in these photographs, even if they are a visceral reaction to the city as opposed to a conscious exploration of the theme. Yet this has been Davidson’s method, spending months if not years with his subjects, allowing his narrative to emerge over time.

“You grow, you change, you become an adult. One learns, and understands, goes forward, and reacts to the history that’s been made. “

Davidson’s time in Los Angeles may have served to magnify the impact of his immersion with young activists and the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement of the early and mid 1960’s. These were powerful experiences; riding on the bus with Freedom Fighters protected by the National Guard, arrested for photographing a young black couple dancing in a restaurant, attending a church service at the 16th Street Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the sermon and the congregation sang joyously, entering the homes of the poor and suffering, and participating in the March, 15th, 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. This was a seminal period for the photographer, “I was on marches and demonstrations, the Selma March. I began to become aware of people’s lives, painful as they may be, or joyous as they may be.” It was during the Selma March that Davidson took what is perhaps his best known image, a photograph of a young black man in white face with VOTE written across his forehead. He is among a group of young men, one carrying the American flag, each carrying a gaze imparting the magnitude of the moment. It was only six months later that President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act that sought to remove the local barriers that kept many black Americans from voting. Amidst the marches Bruce also captured quiet moments of personal fortitude, such as the picture of Annie Blackman in holding her newborn child at home, a scene reminiscent of Walker Evans Farm Security Administration photos of the mid 1930’s. He has continued to photograph her daughter over the years since.

Though Davidson had always been able to bring us into the lives of his subjects, it was during the civil rights movement that his work gained an emotional tenor that was not evident in his earlier series. Here he moves past his mentor Cartier Bresson’s decisive moment to a more personal space in which the humanity of his subjects combine with the surrounding cultural narrative to represent a larger social context.

“There is something you’re thinking about, but you haven’t comes to grips with yet. So you go out in the streets at five in the morning, when it’s just getting light, and you may find someone to photograph. Maybe a homeless person that you can offer a cup of coffee, and get to talking to and then eventually, “May I take a picture?” But not just, there, fast, it’s as a relationship builds.”

After five years on the road imbedded in the Civil Rights movement Davidson had paid his dues and spent the next two years photographing a single block in his home city of New York. He became part of the daily life of the residents of East 100th Street in Spanish Harlem, and in doing so produced a photographic essay that spoke to the nuance of everyday life. Said Bruce, “It’s a way of life, it’s not just necessarily their way of life, but it’s the way of life of everybody. People are people.” This may indeed be the case, but the microcosm of East 100th Street provided insight into the cultural codes that defined ideas of race, class, economics, and culture playing out in large cities across the country during the 1960’s. In East 100th Street Davidson combined the observations of Brooklyn Gang with the lessons of the civil rights movement, giving us his most subtle and perhaps complete body of work to that point.

Survey hardly marks the endpoint of Davison’s career, he is currently interested in the environment, having returned to Los Angeles to photograph the foothills that surround the city. A project he says would not have been possible earlier in his life as he could not have perceived nor understood the importance of the environment at that time. As we toured his in home darkroom he also spoke of an exhibition based on his new book touring Europe with stops at the Centro Italiano per la Fotografia in Turin, Italy, from May 11–August 13, 2017: and at the Fotomusuem in Rotterdam, Netherlands from September 9, 2017–January 7, 2018. There are there are other projects in the works as well, and he longs to spend time printing his new series.

“My work relates to education. Photographic education, and that I would like young people to take pictures, but to stay there longer. Not to treat a photographic experience like an ice cream cone, but to stay and have the whole dinner. “

For Bruce Davidson, photography and the need to communicate via the medium is more than a passion, it is life. In Survey, he has served us a life time of sustenance. His message of understanding, acceptance, and knowledge of the other, is as poignant today as it has been throughout his career.

Bruce Davidson: Survey

Text by Charlotte Cotton, Carlos Gollonet, Frits Gierstberg, Francesco Zanot

Co-published by Aperture and Fundacion MAPFRE (2016)

Review written by: Thomas Werner, Editor at Large IRK Magazine, Author of The Fashion Image, Bloomsbury Publishing, London. @ThomasWernerProjects Instagram;

Thomas Werner Projects, Facebook; Twitter and SnaptChat @TWprojects


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