From the New Yorker Photo Booth Invterview -
The photographer Bruce Davidson, who is eighty-five years old, has lived with his wife, Emily, in a rambling apartment on the Upper West Side for the past five decades. It is appointed with broken-in chairs and couches, an impressive folk-art collection, and has an extra bedroom, to accommodate visits from their four grandchildren. A bathroom has been transformed into a darkroom, complete with a custom-made Leitz enlarger and a fibre print washer installed in the claw-foot tub. An archive of Davidson’s prints and negatives are housed throughout the apartment in floor-to-ceiling shelving.
On a recent day, over tea and pistachio cake, Davidson sat down with me to reflect on his long and remarkable career, which is the subject of an exhibition on view through the end of this week at Howard Greenberg Gallery, in Manhattan. For more than six decades, Davidson has specialized in photographing people at society’s fringes: the lonely widow of a minor impressionist painter in Paris; a troupe of travelling circus performers; a teen-age gang in Brooklyn; the residents of a blighted block in East Harlem. Born in Illinois, Davidson grew up in Oak Park, outside of Chicago, and became interested in photography as a boy. He joined the Magnum photo agency in 1958. In 1961, having read about the attacks on the first Freedom Rider buses, he travelled south and joined the civil-rights protesters on the ride from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi.
Davidson’s civil-rights work, which he pursued for five years, produced some of the most hopeful photographs of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, as well as an indelible record of the violent repression that the civil-rights protests faced. It also marked Davidson’s political awakening as a photographer. In the late nineteen-sixties, he worked with the Metro North Association, an activist organization, to earn the trust of the East Harlem community he documented in his “East 100th Street” series. The Association later used Davidson’s images to advocate for neighborhood-revitalization projects. At one point in our conversation, I asked Davidson if he considered his own work to be a kind of activism, in the same lineage of an artist like Ben Shahn, who advocated for workers’ rights though his murals before signing up to photograph impoverished farmers as a part of the Depression-era Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration), or Davidson’s contemporary Danny Lyon, who photographed the civil-rights movement as a part of his involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But Davidson insists that he is less an activist or an intellectual than an observer, pure and simple. His desire is to see; his methods are instinctive. He told me, “I’m a photographer. I take pictures.”
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become a photographer?
Well, Oak Park has alleys, and alleys have garages, and garages have hoops. And I was waiting one day to get into a basketball game—we used to play Donkey—and a friend of mine said, “You want to see developing in my basement?” And I said, “What is that?” So I went into this dark, Midwestern, dank basement, and there was a red light, and he put in a piece of paper and flashed the light and then put it in the water and the image came up. And that shock of seeing something after nothing sustained me. I ran home to ask my mother if she could empty our jelly closet so that I could make a Bruce Davidson photo shop. And that was the beginning of my encounter with photography.
And you started taking pictures immediately?
Yes. I used to go down to a place called Maxwell Street in Chicago when I was fourteen. And my mother would let me go by myself, provided I was back by dark. My mother was a single parent for many years, but then she remarried, and her new husband gave me an expensive camera that was issued to him because he was a naval officer, a big Kodak Medalist. So I would go down to Maxwell Street. That was exciting to me. The junk dealers and hustlers, and even the Pentecostal Church.
I also apprenticed with a commercial photographer in town, Mr. Cox—he was Southern, always had a cigar in his mouth—and he taught me how to make dye-transfer prints. He was a press photographer, and he would take me along for the engagement pictures. He showed me how to work with a Rolleiflex and a flash, and later he made a strobe for me.
Life is made up of accidents. When my mother remarried, we moved into a Tudor house across the street from the forest preserves. I would go into the woods and take pictures. And I took a picture of some baby owls, and I submitted it to a Kodak high-school competition and won.
You attended college at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and then began graduate studies at Yale. But after a term there you were drafted into the Army, and you became a military photographer. How did that happen?
I was in Fort Huachuca, in Arizona. I’d submitted some pictures I’d taken of the Yale football team to Life, and they ran the pictures. And then I was at the barracks, sand blowing through, and the captain told me, “We came from the barbershop. We saw Life magazine. Put away that mop. You’re photographing the general now, sir.”
Later, I was sent to Paris. There was a security lab there, where an experimental heart operation was being performed, and they wanted documentation of that. I was there for eleven months or so.
And that was when you made the “Widow of Montmartre.”
Yes, I was introduced to a French soldier who liked painting—he was an artist, actually. And he said, “There’s a widow you should visit—she’s very interesting. She’s 92. She is the widow of Leon Fauchet, an Impressionist painter. And she lives alone on top of this garret, all the way up eight flights of stairs.” So he introduced me to the Widow of Montmartre. And if you look through the contact sheets you can see how close a relationship we had with her. She took me to a market, and the people in the market would make fun of her with this young chap.
While in Paris, you got to the Magnum agency.
Well, I wanted to meet Henri Cartier-Bresson [the head of Magnum at the time] and show him my pictures. And they said, “He's very busy. Come back next week.” So I returned the next week, and he was there, and he looked at my pictures and pointed out certain ones that he thought were right.
And then, in 1957, I left the Army and returned to New York to work for Life as a freelancer. And one day I was on the Fifth Avenue bus and I saw Cartier-Bresson walking down the sidewalk. I jumped off the bus, tapped him on the shoulder—it’s New York, anything can happen. And he said, “Come on upstairs. I want you to meet some people at Magnum.” And that was the beginning.
We had a picture librarian at Magnum who happened to be an amateur trapeze artist. And he took me aside, and he said, “There's a circus in town that has a white tent. You won’t find that anyplace else—you’ll be able to take pictures in this tent, which is light.” So I took a bus to New Jersey and I met Jimmy Armstrong, the clown from my circus series. That was the first encounter.
The first assignments that you gave yourself were already focussed on people who were marginalized from society, or weren’t fully integrated. What was it that they drew you to those kinds of subjects?
I’m an outsider on the inside. I am better seeing on the dark side of things that I am on the light. I think I’m also kind of an explorer, and I need commitment in order to exercise the passion I might have for a particular series of pictures. I always said to myself, “My pictures begin the night before I arrive.” Almost like a bullfighter, I would prepare myself emotionally to go into a world that’s somewhat painful. In the case of my “East 100th Street” project, it took two years before I felt, I’ve finished looking here. I have to look someplace else.
With the “East 100th” work especially, but for many of your projects, it does seem like it was very painful to see the things that you saw and to document the things that you documented. How did you deal with that?
Well, you know, I was young. And in the case of the civil-rights movement it took five years before I understood what I was looking at. I was not born understanding how important those marches were, and how violent they could be. I was there to see, to look.
Did you ever feel like you were in danger when you were doing the civil-rights work?
Oh, yeah. We didn’t know what was going on. For instance, I was on a bus once. The bus was full of youths singing. But we didn’t know who was in the bushes alongside the bus. Because it was a rural highway, with lots of trees. There could very easily have been a sniper. We were afraid.
I also went to a Ku Klux Klan meeting once, and drove my car too close to their bonfire. I wanted a good view. And they said, over the loudspeaker, “New York plates, you’re too close to the fire!” I knew the next thing would be somebody coming over to question me—“Are you an agitator?” So I got out of there as fast as I could.
Did you try to keep the line between being a documentarian and being a participant? Or was there a point where you really you felt that you were actually involved in the civil-rights movement?
I felt I was involved, but isolated; I didn’t want to be involved in anything. I wasn’t good at politics. I like to observe. You know, if you notice, in the photographs I made of Martin Luther King, Jr., I didn’t make my presence known to him. I observed him, and I have very good photographs of him, and the mark he made. But I didn’t go up and talk to him. I was a photographer.
But with your work you were also doing politics.
If you wake up in the morning, you’re making a political statement.
Did you feel like the “100th Street” photographs were an extension of your work in the civil-rights movement?
Would you have thought to do that kind of work in Harlem if you hadn’t seen what happened in the South?
I think I was sensitized. I was humble in the face of people’s lives. It was the Citizens Committee [at the Metro North Association] that allowed me to photograph in East Harlem. I was allowed to enter homes on a Hundredth Street, night and day. But at first they said, “Photographers come through our neighborhood all the time and take pictures and nothing changes and we don’t even get a picture.” And I said, “I work a little differently. I work more eye-to-eye. If you allow me to make one photograph to show you, to present to you, then I will go along with your decision.” So that’s what I did. They assigned me an escort, José Rosa, a young activist. So he would take me along, and I said, “I’d like to make a picture of a family of ten.” And they let me through.
There’s one photograph I took of two children on a fire escape. At first, the mother saw me taking pictures and took the kids back in. I counted the number of stairs and went up and knocked on her door. And she said, “If you take a picture of my children cleaned up, I'll let you take them when they’re in the window.” And that’s what I did.
For your “Brooklyn Gang” series, I remember you saying, in an interview, that you found out where to find the gangs were because you read about one of their rumbles in the newspaper.
Yeah, in the Daily News. I knew where they were so I went there, and, as I remember, I brought some rolls of color film with me and took some pictures of kids with bandages.
What was it that compelled you to want to photograph them?
I think I was drawn to their life—their depression, their anger. I fit right into that. I was also aware that things could change for them and change for me, because I wasn’t that much older. I was twenty-nine. But I knew those emotions. The fact that they were so needy in seeing themselves.
The first day I was there, the gang leader said, “There’s a great view on this roof. I’ll take you up. I said to myself, “If I go with him, he’s gonna toss me off.” It happened in “West Side Story,” why wouldn’t it happen to me? But I knew if I didn’t go, they wouldn’t respect me. So I went. It actually was good views.
You were friends with Diane Arbus. Do you think that your photographs, particularly of the circus, influenced Arbus at all?
Well, she used to say that she was better when people were looking at the camera. And I was better when they weren’t.
You photographed outsiders, she photographed outsiders. But when she photographed them, to me, at least, it always seemed like she was photographing herself. And you weren’t, I assume?
I was looking for myself. I just couldn’t find him. I think that’s what drove me on.