Bruce Davidson

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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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Works

Early Life

Bruce Davidson was born in 1933 in Oak Park, Illinois. Davidson went on to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology, gaining a postgraduate degree from Yale University, where he studied with Josef Albers. At the age of 19, Davidson won the 1952 Kodak National High School Photographic Award. For his college thesis, Davidson produced a photo essay documenting football players; this was subsequently published in Life magazine in 1955.

After graduating, Davidson was drafted into the US army and was stationed near Paris, France. It was there that he met his lifelong mentor, Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the founders of Magnum Photos, whose friendship and advice had a lasting influence on Davidson’s practice.

Early Career

Having left military service in 1957, Davidson worked as a freelance photographer for Life magazine and a year later joined Magnum photos. Rejecting the traditional objective approach to photography, Davidson formulated a practice that involved embedding himself in the world of his subjects for extended periods of time, often spending months nurturing relationships. Davidson describes his photography as an attempt to understand his own place in the world, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s he produced several bodies of work for which he immersed himself in communities normally hostile to outsiders, creating powerful and deeply intimate photo essays.

Davidson began photographing at a circus in New Jersey 1958, in order to capture the ‘strange loneliness’ of the carnival, and document the cultural phenomenon as it was beginning to die out. His deeper interest was in the daily lives of circus people, and he formed a particularly strong connection with Jimmy Armstrong, a dwarf who worked for the circus. Armstrong became a central figure in Davidson’s 1958 series The Dwarf and the Clyde Beatty Circus.

Davidson’s most renowned work is the series, Brooklyn Gang. Having read a newspaper article describing the outbreak of fighting by gang members in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Davidson sought to photograph one such group. He first made contact with members of a gang that called themselves ‘The Jokers’ through a social worker and subsequently spent several months photographing them around their Brooklyn turf, at dances in Prospect Park and drinking beer at Coney Island. This seminal series is widely renowned for capturing an intimacy and sensitivity amongst the youth of New York.

In 1962, Davidson received a Guggenheim Fellowship to document youth in the Southern states of the US during the Civil Rights Movement. Between 1961 and 1965, he recorded the early moments of the Civil Rights Movement and impoverished inner-city suburbs. His work, focusing on the humanising of the poor, was strongly supported by the American antipoverty programmes of the 60s, and used to demonstrate the urgency of government action.

In 1963, the Museum of Modern Art, New York presented his early work in a solo exhibition, the first of several. Davidson became the first photographer to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1967, after spending two years producing his seminal series East 100th Street. The photographs, taken between 1966 and 1968, document the dire social conditions of one block in East Harlem. Davidson established relationships with the African American and Puerto Rican communities to create portraits that resound with mutual respect. The photographs were subsequently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1970, in the same year they were published in book form.

The 1980s to Present

Marking Davidson’s shift from black and white to colour photography is his 1980 series, Subway, which captured the gritty vitality of the New York Metro’s underworld, which at the time was overwhelmed by gang violent and vandalism. The series is both a poetic study of light and colour and an important historical document of an elemental part of New York City’s social history.

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, the Gold Medal Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Arts Club in 2007 and the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award from Sony in 2011. 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 and International Center of Photography in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. and the Tate Galleries, London.

Related

Notes, News, Press and Exhibitions

News

Bruce Davidson: Brooklyn Gang at Cleveland Museum of Art

Press

The Guardian: Street kissers, street kittens | Bruce Davidson’s new Britain

Press

It’s Nice That: Bruce Davidson revisits 1960s Britain

Exhibitions

Bruce Davidson: A United Kingdom

Press

AnOther: A United Kingdom | Bruce Davidson’s Portrait of 1960s Britain

Press

The Guardian | The big picture: fresh-faced innocence in the Ebbw Valley