History of Street Photography: Track A, Part 11– Bruce Davidson

Ed. Note: It was my intention to profile the last 3 photographers of the Rule-Making epoch at once. However, due to utter laziness, I’m posting these in 3 pieces, starting with Bruce Davidson. I’ll try to get to Elliott Erwitt and Robert Frank sometime this week. As always, I appreciate your patience for the long lag between posts, but Maria and I were a little busy with her move from England to the U.S. and our marriage and honeymoon in October. We’re back on the job now, and the posts should be coming pretty steadily from now on. *Bill knocks on his head.


Bruce Davidson was born in Oak Park, Illinois in September 1933. If one were to go by the Magnum Photos bio (below), one would come to the conclusion that he picked up a camera at seven, stumbled through the wildness until meeting the Wizard, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who waved his wand and turned him into a photographer. The truth is far less glamourous.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 9.42.59 PM

Davidson received his first camera as a gift from his mother at age 7. “It was, he says, ‘a primitive little box-type machine’ and he used it to take photographs of his suburban neighbourhood, Oak Park, Illinois. ‘Most boys my age had a dog,’ he says, laughing. ‘I had a camera.’ ” – Interview with The Guardian, 23 April 2011.

By age 10, he’d convinced his mom, an independent single mother, to build him a full darkroom and his career was pretty much set. He worked as photographer through school, at university, in the Army, and afterward, as a freelancer. Some 70 years after his first photos, Davidson is considered a master of post-war photography, easily eclipsing Cartier-Bresson and many of his Magnum colleagues. As The Guardian detailed:

[Davidson was] a veteran of the new wave of radical documentary pioneers who emerged in the early 1960s and also included Danny Lyon, Lee Friedlander and his friend, the late Diane Arbus. “I guess we had different ideas about what photography could do, could be,” he says now. “From the start, my photographs were about capturing a mood. I didn’t do picture stories; it was more about taking a picture that caught a mood, then building a series that sustained that mood.”

While Davidson cited HCB, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus as influences, his work stands on its own, and measures well against any. It was Davidson’s series work that left the major mark on street photography. In 1958, the year he joined Magnum, he photographed a traveling circus for a year, befriending the performers and documenting their unusual life. Over the next few years, he documented life around a Brooklyn street gang in a series entitled Brooklyn Gang.

Davidson followed that work with a series of Civil Rights era shots that focused on the mood of the time, all the photos at once documenting what was happening while showing the tense relationship between blacks and whites at the time, and the burgeoning interrelationships that had not before been possible.

In 1970, Davidson published East 100th Street, now considered a classic in documenting ghetto life. He’d spent 2 years documenting the area, and though the work was widely heralded, it wasn’t without criticism. Critics claimed that either he made life look better than it was, or worse. That’s actually probably the sign that the photographer has hit his mark — when absolutely no one can believe he dad. More importantly, his work mattered.

NYC. East 100th Street, Spanish Harlem.

NYC. East 100th Street, Spanish Harlem.

1966 USA. NYC. East 100th Street, Spanish Harlem. USA. New York City. 1966. East 100th Street. Image send to Greg Kucera (Transaction : 632060003440781250) © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

1966 USA. NYC. East 100th Street, Spanish Harlem. USA. New York City. 1966. East 100th Street © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

He’d later tell The Guardian, “I went back years later to photograph the positive changes and a woman who had been an activist there in the 1970s told me that when the people in power saw the book, heads rolled. It caused a shake-up and the good effects filtered down to the community.”

Davidson during his Subway series -- photo by his wife.

Davidson during his Subway series — photo by his wife.

In 1980, he published another work, his brilliant color set on the New York City Subway. Those who ride the transit system today would find it hard to believe how bad things had become, save Davidson’s extraordinary, powerful, work.

The strange, the lonely, the out-of-place, the damned dangerous. A man holds a gun to another’s head. A knife-wielding arm hangs from a subway car. Police are on patrol to begin the arduous clean-up effort. Businessmen look out of place amidst the graffiti.

Davidson continues to work as an editorial photographer, although he’s branched out to landscapes and the occasional celebrity shoot. Even so, his street roots show through, with his photos of stars such as Marilyn Monroe or Sammy Davis, Jr. appearing as raw and candid as any East Harlem photo shoot. When asked what makes a good photograph, Davidson had a simple answer: “Often what makes a good picture is almost subliminal. It could be a look on a face or a detail on a piece of clothing. You just have to go with the flow sometimes.”

Or, always.


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