It took me a long while to come around to the work of Bruce Davidson. Him being a Magnum photographer and all, you'd of thought my shelves would be sagging with Davidson books by now. I was put off by the color photograph on the cover of his photobook Subway
: an in-your-face portrait of a bare-chested, muscular young man in a New York subway car, flaunting heavy gold chains, his expression made threatening by darkness obscuring his eyes. Ohhh...a hoodlum, a gangsta...oh no I don't want THAT book. Too unsettling.
So much for telling a book by its cover.
Eventually, my desire to look and see gets the better of me and I probe a little bit, then a little bit more, and more often than not I feel like I've discovered something wonderful. So with Bruce Davidson, when I read Bruce Davidson: Survey
, a career-long overview published this year by Aperture Foundation and Fondacion MAPFRE.
Bruce Davidson is a photographer who's work takes the long view. Although Henri Cartier-Bresson was an early influence on Davidson, and a Magnum colleague, Davidson's work is not characterized by Cartier-Bresson's geometrical composition and perfection of timing. Rather, his work is best reflected in series, images emerging from a long, deliberate process of familiarization with the subject(s). Photographer and subject become comfortable with one another. Hair gets let down. Masks fall aside. It is in photographic series in which Davidson's stronger influence - W. Eugene Smith - is recognized. Able and willing to spend weeks, months or even years living with his subjects, Davidson could have continued the great tradition of Magazine story-telling, had not the illustrated magazines already begun their decline in the onslaught of television.
Davidson caught the tail-end of the golden years of the magazine with assignments for Life
and the New York Times
. The extended nature of some assignments - well as self-initiated work - resulted in series rich enough to publish in photobook form, starting with East 100th Street
in 1970. That monograph, first published by Harvard University Press, capitalizes on Davidson's ability to visualize with dignity and compassion, and without a trace of cliche, the daily lives of the residents of a dilapidated housing block in Harlem. As Charlotte Cotton, one of the textual contributors to Bruce Davidson: Survey wrote: Davidson
"...reimagine[d] what had become a cultural ideogram of the troubled urban ghetto - to create something much more truthful and multidimensional."
Although Davidson used larger format cameras (including 4x5 inch view and press cameras) with very slow, fine-grained black and white film in shooting East 100th Street
, a good deal of his oeuvre
was accomplished with the Leica (starting with his purchase of a M3 in 1954 while studying design and photography at Yale). As described by contributor Carlos Gollonet:
"Davidson is neither a street photographer in the traditional sense nor a conventional photojournalist, yet in [Davidson's Brooklyn Gang series] we encounter characteristics of both styles. The agile gaze of his 35mm Leica, which enables a much more discreet, quick, and intuitive vision, brings more action to this series...a cinematographic immediacy..."Bruce Davidson: Survey
is very well-written and printed, and I found it to be an extremely intriguing introduction to a photographer, the appreciation of whom I had allowed to be put off by my own prejudice. The portraits and scenes are multi-layered, wonderfully atmospheric, and rewarding of long second looks. Now I want to buy a copy of Subway
, and I know that I will enjoy and be enriched by it. So much for telling a book by its cover.