Bruce Davidson (born 1933) remains one of the world’s great photographers. A member of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency since 1958, he took inspiration from his friend and mentor, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and went on to redefine the genre of photojournalism with his singular style and methods. He is perhaps best known for his photo-essays documenting subversive and counter culture groups.
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Child with Pram, from ‘Welsh Miners’, 1965
Girl with Kitten, London, 1960
Junior Smoking Cigarette on Subway, Brooklyn, 1959
Two Nannies Pulling Buggies, from ‘England/Scotland’, 1966
Cathy Fixing her Hair in Cigarette Machine Mirror with Arty at the Ocean Tide Baths and Bar, Coney Island, 1959
Young Man and Coca-Cola Machine, 1959
Davidson was born in 1933 in Illinois. He was interested in photography from an early age and at age 10, his mother built him a darkroom in their basement. Davidson went on to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology and Yale University, where one of his teachers was artist Josef Albers. For his college thesis, Davidson created a photo essay that was published in Life magazine in 1955, documenting football players behind the scenes of the game. After graduating, he was drafted into the army and was stationed near Paris, France. It was there that he met his lifelong mentor, Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Photographing New York
Having left military service in 1957, Davidson worked as a freelance photographer for Life magazine and a year later joined Magnum photos. Unlike other photographers before him, Davidson embedded himself in the world of his subjects for extended periods, the results of which formed a series of powerful photo-essays. One of the earliest examples of this dedication was when he joined the circus in 1958 in order to become fully immersed in the environment.
Subsequent projects followed, including his seminal Brooklyn Gang; through a combination of familiarity with his subjects and his own visual poetry, Davidson brought his compositions to life. In 1962, Davidson received a Guggenheim Fellowship, creating a profound documentation of the civil rights movement in America. The following year marked another major breakthrough when the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented his early work in a solo show.
Davidson became the first photographer to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1967, after spending two years producing one of his best-known series East 100th Street. The photographs from this series document the dire social condition of one block in East Harlem, later being published into a book by Harvard University Press in 1970. Davidson is mainly interested in documenting the struggles and triumphs of people as they go through their lives – the American Dream laid bare. His photographs are powerful, truthful, sometimes brutal, and often breathtaking. Davidson’s images are enriched by a quietness that speaks volumes about the profiles of the characters he photographed. Predominantly considered by the media as aggressors to society, Davidson focuses on their human qualities, revealing the intimate and affectionate nature of these groups. Through this honesty Davidson gives his subjects a voice and a platform to be remembered by, but he also finds the process personally satisfying. As he once said: “My pictures are not escapes from reality, but a contemplation of reality, so that I can experience life in a deeper way.”
The 1980s to Present
While Davidson’s most iconic photographs use black and white film, he has also amassed a large archive of colour photography. This has been put to best use in his series from 1980, Subway, in which he captured the gritty vitality of the New York Metro’s underworld. More recently he has shifted his focus from the buildings and infrastructure of cities to the nature and landscapes of these urban spaces. From 1991-1995 he photographed the layers of life in Central Park, and has produced two similar series, The Nature of Paris and The Nature of Los Angeles. Both these bodies of work focus on the botanical life of their metropolises, and offer an alternative perspective from the bustle of the city streets, to lend a quieter vision of the urban sprawl.
In 2004, he received the Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Documentary Photography, followed by the Gold Medal Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Arts Club in 2007. His work has been extensively published in monographs and are included in many major public and private art collections around the world including the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Tate Galleries, UK.