Bruce Davidson and The Jokers

In the late fifties, New York was plagued by youth gangs. Gang ‘rumbles’ became so frequent that a Youth Board was formed to stop the violence. A Brooklyn gang called The Jokers made headlines in the papers, and the young Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson contacted them through the Youth Board. As Davidson describes; “at first I went with a Youth Board worker to take pictures of their wounds from a gang war in front of their candy store hang-out. Later they let me go alone with them to Coney Island at night where they would lie under the boardwalk drinking beer. In the morning they would dance down the boardwalk together. A girl stopped to comb her hair at the cigarette-machine mirror. Then they took a long bus ride back to where they lived. In 1959, they were about seventeen and I was twenty-five.”

The blonde girl in the photograph was called Cathy, who eventually committed suicide. As Davidson recalls, “Cathy was beautiful like Brigitte Bardot.” Though, with and without his camera, he saw through her confident facade: “She was always there, but outside…”. The division between observation and immersion became blurred with Davidson’s photo-series, him admitting to them allowing him to witness their depression, and pain, and subsequently sharing his own with them. The result are powerful surviving photographs which importantly document the hardships of Brooklyn in the late 1950s.

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