Written by Diana Dinuzzo
Photography is a vast field, with many masters able to teach us how they see the world. Some of them teach us through critical approach, while others want to register what they are witnessing, being as objective as possible. And some of the great ones even contribute to our ever-changing perception of reality. One such photographer is Bruce Davidson.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Davidson is the author of many photos that have become part of our shared human experience. His work is being shown in Spain for the very first time, in a solo show running through August 28th, at one of the most beautiful venues in Barcelona – the modernist Casa Garriga I Nogués, a part of the Fundación MAPFRE.
Davidson portrays his subjects with grace and intimacy and his atmospheres with a strong narrative sense. By taking pictures focused on the lives of neglected and vulnerable subjects, he shows us the places where his charismatic, yet at the same time delicate presence has been welcomed. This show has been put together with the help of the Foundation for American Art Terra, and will be traveling first to Madrid, then Rotterdam and finally to Turin.
Davidson has been shooting for Magnum Photography Agency since 1958 and many of the series exhibited in the show, such as Brooklyn Gang (1959), Time of Change (1961-1965) and East 100th Street (1966-1968) are some of the most representative of his work. His subjects are outsiders and urban scenes filled with pathos.
Davidson’s interest in photography began when he was ten, and his influences include Robert Frank, Eugene Smith, and Henri Cartier-Bresson (who he met while in Paris). His work as a freelancer photographer for Life Magazine earned him the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962. In 1963 MOMA presented his early works in a one-man solo exhibition. In 1967 he received the first grant for photography ever issued from the National Endowment for the Arts, for the two years he spent witnessing and documenting the desperate social conditions in East Harlem. He received an Open Society Institute Individual Fellowship in 1998 for his return and subsequent work on the subject. Today, Davidson is still shooting in New York City and continues to work as an editorial photographer.
What visually called and inspired you to depict these sorts of subjects like in East 100th Street and Brooklyn Gang? Why did you choose them?
Well, they chose me. There was someone working at Magnum [Photography Agency], Sam Holmes, whose cousin lived on 100th street and was a white minister housing the children from the street. So I contacted him and he said that he could not give me permission to take pictures until I asked the Citizen’s Committee. And I did. So they said, “Photographers come to the ghetto all the time and take pictures and we never see anything change!” So I told them, “I work a bit differently, I work eye to eye.” They said, “We will give you permission to take one picture”. So based on that they gave me a helper, somebody to make it safe for me to be around. They are not just cold if you give things a chance to unfold. And I did for two years. In some way, I am still connected with the community. A lot of things have changed now. It has become more modern. I was given a fellowship to go back, and what I found was that there were not enough familiar images. One street was completely renovated but it didn’t inspire me. What did inspired me is all the various things that were helpful on 100th Street: a women’s health center, new housing opportunity, tutorial programs, I was able to photograph all that. So I spread it out.
What subjects do you consider controversial for the time you shot them and when they were published?
I was always my own person. I always did things independently and then submitted to magazines, like Esquire or Life. There might have been controversial photos, but they are not controversial now. There were people that said that I made pictures look too good, and others that said that I did not make them good enough. In big cities like NYC you are going to get all kinds of opinions.
How do you perceive the role of digital photography today?
It’s like just after the silent film era when we went into sound and music films. This is like the new technology and then it will become an art form. But when it started it was awful. I feel that with digital photography, it is all relative to what the concept is, what the purpose is.
At which point did you perceive you were becoming famous for your work?
I was not really conscious of being a superstar, only in Spain! I go back to my neighborhood and I am still like the dog that people walk.
What is your next series?
I am working now on series with The Museum of Natural History, and we will see how that goes. Right now I am working on it, and getting positive feedback from my staff, and I showed it to one or two people and they liked it very much.
What are your thoughts about street photography?
East 100th Street is street photography, but a street with permission. In fact, many of my works are taken from the streets, like Brooklyn Gangs for instance, and I asked for permission for that as well. The idea of the ‘street’ is throughout my work. In fact, that might make a good show! [He says, looking at his gallerist] “The Street Photography of Bruce Davidson!” Today I live off all the work that I did and can afford, thanks to my gallery and collectors, to work in museums like the Museum of Natural History, among the dead people!
And how does it feel to be in a museum here, are you proud of the show? Did you help with the selection of the work?
Oh yes, oh yeah! I selected the work and had help from other people, including my wife Emily, to find the right picture for a given series.
And how does it feel to be so well known abroad, on the other side of the ocean?
I just try to stay awake! Because of the jet lag… No, it is a very beautiful experience, and the people were really nice to us. We got to visit the Sagrada Familia and Park Güell, we had a meal by the sea, and my daughters are here too. When they go out they bring their digital cameras and they take pictures of the life at night. I do think that it is interesting that you can do that with digital cameras.
The selection of works is just black and white, what do you prefer?
Oh, it depends on what my mind says. This is a Leica, for example, not a digital camera. But my daughters like their digital. I am taking a trip backward.