“I don’t always know why I’m photographing something. It’s my learning machine.” -Bruce Davidson
Bruce Davidson was born and grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. In an interview with Chris Wiley in the New Yorker, he said, “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.”
Fellowships and grants
Starting out Davidson sought out subjects apart from society or those who were unusual including a gang of teenagers in Brooklyn and a dwarf clown (opening photo, bottom row, first image on left.) This work earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph the Civil Rights Movement (opening photo, top row first 2 images, bottom row, third image from left on the top.) His civil rights work spanned 5 years and resulted in his political awakening.
In 1967, Davidson was awarded the first-ever National Endowment for the Arts in photography. He used the grant working with the Metro North Association to earn the trust of the East Harlem community. He would spend the next two years photographing a single city block — East 100th Street — in New York City’s East Harlem.
In his New Yorker interview, Chris Wiley writes, “His [Bruce Davidson’s] desire is to see; his methods are instinctive. He told me, “I’m a photographer. I take pictures.”
The work resulted in a book published in 1970 called East 100th Street. Used copies can be found at The Strand in New York starting at $350.00.
Bruce Davidson would travel to Brooklyn practically every day. He got to know the teenagers there. He was young enough to blend in with them. They trusted him because he spent more time with them. They were poor.
“What’s important to me,” Davidson said, “is the next picture. The picture I haven’t taken yet.”
Davidson talks about this work in this short 3 1/2 minute video from Time.
Life and Magnum
Davidson did his military service in the U.S. Army. In the New Yorker interview, he said, “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.”
After serving in the armed forces, Bruce Davidson worked for Life magazine. Then, in 1957 he joined the picture agency Magnum founded by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and David Seymour (also known as Chim.)
During the 1980s, Davidson explored the New York Subway photographically in color as well as in black & white (opening photo, bottom row, third image from left on the bottom.)
His most recent work has been New York’s Central Park.