“I felt that my mission in life was to make visible what appears to be invisible and I do that as someone who is blind and comes into a world and suddenly begins to see.”
That mission that Bruce Davidson chose was, without a doubt, a very tall order. But this legendary American photographer has successfully completed that mission, time and time again, over the course of more than a half-century of photographic excellence.
Who is Bruce Davidson
Bruce Davidson, born 1933, has produced some of the greatest photographic projects of our time. His journey into the world of photography began at the age of 10 when his mother built him a darkroom in their basement, and he hasn’t stopped photographing since. Davidson won his first national award at age 19, and his college thesis – a photo essay documenting Yale football players and their emotions behind the scenes – was published by Life magazine in 1955. Indeed, a star was rising fast.
Davidson was drafted into the Army following college. While stationed in Paris, he met one of Magnum Photos’ founding fathers, Henri Cartier-Bresson and shared his portfolio with him. Davidson worked as a freelance photographer for magazines such as Life and Esquire after his stint in the Army, and even shot fashion for Vogue. But, after a year, he joined Magnum himself in 1958. Aged just 24, he became the youngest member of the prestigious collective.
After joining the group, Davidson began producing photo essays that would leave a lasting mark on the photography community and in the social consciousness of the world. “Brooklyn Gang” covered young gang life in the late 1950’s, but that was only a prelude to the more powerful work to come. In the early 1960’s, Davidson began photographing the growing Civil Rights Movement in America. He shot images while riding along with the famous Freedom Rides. He photographed Martin Luther King. He shot marches and demonstrations in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama. He also captured Ku Klux Klan cross burnings and a Malcolm X really in Harlem. By 1965, Davidson had shot some of the most important images of the movement. In 1963, he had a one-man show at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Davidson then became the first to be awarded a grant for photography from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966. For two years he documented one poverty-stricken block in East Harlem. The result, “East 100th Street”, was published in 1970 and was exhibited at MoMA.
The next mission Davidson undertook was documenting life riding on New York City’s subway system. In the 1970’s, this was no easy task. Again, like when he documented the Civil Rights Movement, Davidson sometimes found himself in a dangerous environment. He was even mugged on the subway system at one point. Another instance found him working with the police as a decoy to catch a mugger. “Subway”, the book, was a color essay and first published by Aperture in 1986.
It is important to note that Davidson returned to East 100th Street in 1998 to photograph the changes and revitalization of the block. When he initially photographed the neighborhood, he gave the subjects whom he photographed in their apartments a print. When the book was published, he gave them a copy of the book. When he returned, he also presented a community slide show.
Bruce Davidson, who at age 82, continues to work to this day, has also photographed celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Paul Newman and Al Pacino. His photographs have even been used as album covers by Bob Dylan and the Beastie Boys.
So how did he influence me?
Like other masters, Bruce Davidson’s greatness as a photographer is a result of more than just being technically proficient with a camera. And even though some of his projects were so significant historically, it’s more than just the subject matter he’s chosen that make his photos brilliant. Davidson is about immersion. His projects aren’t shoot and run. They’re total commitment. Months and years of devotion to it. And, he puts himself into the photographs. Not his visible image, but more his true self.
“All my photographs are portraits—self-portraits, because you can’t photograph someone without reflecting/echoing, like a bat sending out a signal that comes back to you. You get not only a picture of who you’re photographing, but you get a picture of yourself at the same time,”
“If I am looking for a story at all, it is in my relationship to the subject—the story that tells me, rather than that I tell.”
Bruce Davidson is one of the greatest storytellers of our time, but it ultimately begs the question, what kind of photographer is he? A photojournalist? A documentary photographer? A street photographer?
I’ve discussed before how the lines between street photography, documentary photography and photojournalism can be blurry. I would be quick to label Davidson a documentary photographer or photojournalist myself. However, the Subway project has strong elements of street. But, categorization of his work really doesn’t matter. Davidson himself answered the question best.
“People say, oh you’re a documentary photographer. I don’t even know what that means. Oh you’re a photojournalist. I don’t know what that means, I am rarely published in journals. They say, oh well then you’re a fine art photographer. I say, no I’m not. I’m not a fine art photographer. I aspire to be a fine photographer.”
There is where Davidson’s biggest influence may lie. He freed himself of categorization. Of being stuck in one genre. Of being pigeonholed. Without a doubt, there has to be great liberation in being free like that. There’s no worry in crossing any blurry lines. There’s freedom to fully immerse yourself in your project. In your work. There’s freedom to experiment. There’s freedom to make the lines even more blurry if you like.
If I can blur those lines myself, then I can become a better photographer. You can argue that sticking to one thing, practicing one style of photography, will make you the best you can be in that style. But perhaps it’s better to be free of the restrictions of a genre. Cannot other styles and influences be implemented? Other techniques? And with the freedom, the dangerous trap of copying a style or becoming stuck in a style can be avoided.
There’s elements of photojournalism, documentary and fine art that can be applied to street photography. I believe it’s best to leave the options open and explore those styles because it will lead to the ultimate goal that Bruce Davidson mentions. And that is to be a “fine photographer”.