In the late 1950s, 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, igniting the young Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson to contact them, through the Youth Board. Their meeting initiated Davidson’s celebrated series that would go on to be named after the group.
Davidson, when photographing ‘The Jokers’, became an everyday witness and documenter of this isolated youth culture. It stands as one of the first comprehensive photographic records of post-war youth culture and their search for identity, revealing his subjects’ lives with an authentic and honest perspective. His insider knowledge offered Davidson a style that was more intimate and less documentary, stating, ‘documentary photography suggests you just stand back, that you’re not in the picture, you’re just recording. I am in the picture, believe me. I am in the picture, but I am not the picture’.
Davidson experienced the lives of the subjects in gang whilst they lived it. Describing his experience; ‘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’. This intimacy and acceptance from the group was paramount to Davidson’s success. This early rapport resulted in a particularly pivotal image, Cathy Fixing her Hair in Cigarette Machine Mirror, 1959, which the artist goes on to describe, ‘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 photograph comprises of two members of ‘The Jokers’ at Coney Island Bathhouse, a location at which the gang would often spend time. Here, Davidson focusses on Cathy while she fixes her hair in the mirrored side of a cigarette machine, whilst a boy, Artie Jean Marino, readjusts his T-shirt sleeve. Tragically committing suicide some years later, Cathy is immortalised in this image that encapsulates her youthful vitality and vibrance, caught in a dynamic moment, mid-motion, hair flowing and twisted in contrapposto. This moment seems entirely candid, and is underwritten by a subtle sensual tension. Cathy’s captivating reflection reveals the detail that adolescents pay to their appearance, often in an attempt to hide the fears or anxieties they experience.
The division between observation and immersion became blurred with Davidson’s photo-series, heightened in this work by his use of the reflection to reveal candid truths about his subject, his presence feels unnoticed. This complete immersion leads to images that allow Davidson to witness and exhibit their depression, and pain, and subsequently sharing his own with them. The result is a series of powerful photographs which importantly document both the universals of the adolescent experience, and specifically of the hardships of Brooklyn in the late 1950s