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Bruce Davidson: On a Life in Photography

The Magnum photographer is the subject of a new book from Prestel that takes us behind the making of some of the most seminal works of the 20th century.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Bruce Davidson FRANCE. Paris. 1957.

“When I was a kid, I played baseball and you heard the sound the bat made when it really connected with the ball; you knew you had a great hit. It’s the same with photography: sometimes you hear that click of the shutter and you know you’ve caught something really special,” observes American photographer Bruce Davidson (b. 1933).

Also: Eve Arnold: Magnum Legacy

Davidson, a member of Magnum Photos since 1958, authored some of the most seminal monographs of the twentieth century including Brooklyn Gang, East 100 Street, and Subway. He is now the subject of a new book, Bruce Davidson: Magnum Legacy by Vicki Goldberg (Prestel), which explores the photographer’s life work in photography. Davidson speaks with Crave about his work and about the magic of photography that kept him hooked in a career that spans six decades.

Bruce Davidson GREAT BRITAIN. Wales. 1965.

Bruce Davidson GREAT BRITAIN. Wales. 1965.

Please talk about your earliest years using a camera, back in the 1940s. What did you most enjoy about being a photographer during those early formative years of your life? What kinds of subjects did you find yourself most attracted to?

Bruce Davidson: In those early years in Oak Park Chicago, the camera allowed me to be out of the house and free. When my mother remarried I was given a good camera by my stepfather and allowed to make voyages in from Oak Park to Chicago’s loop and Michigan Ave. This gave me a sense of freedom as if the camera was a good friend that would allow me to feel free.

Photography has been a practice you have maintained for the better part of your life. I love what you said in the book, “I don’t always know why I’m photographing something. It’s my learning machine.” Can you please expand upon this: how does the act of making photographs help you discover the world as well as understand your own mind?

When I began to photograph aspects of the Civil Rights movement in America I could bare witness and feel a part of something bigger than myself.

Bruce Davidson USA. Montgomery, Alabama. 1961. National Guard soldiers escort Freedom Riders along their ride from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi.

Bruce Davidson USA. Montgomery, Alabama. 1961. National Guard soldiers escort Freedom Riders along their ride from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi.

One of the things I admire most about your work is the deep sense of humanity that exists, a compassion and consideration for the details of people’s lives and the dignity of the individual. What do you find to be the most powerful aspect of creating, producing and showing your work?

As my photographs began to be seen in magazines and newspapers, I felt a calling. One of our daughters is an art teacher and she discovered one of my civil rights photos on the cover of a textbook. It was with that—that passion and purpose merged.

I love how you said, “I’m another person taking pictures.” Can you kindly expand on that? How does the camera transform your experience of yourself?

Well entering other worlds and learning from them like East 100th Street—when I began that project a woman came up to me and asked what I was doing and I said I am documenting the ghetto, she said to me, “What you call the ghetto, is what I call my home.” That stayed with me. East 100th Street became a sacred place for my camera.

Bruce Davidson USA. New York City. 1980. Subway.

Bruce Davidson USA. New York City. 1980. Subway.

The color work in Subway stands out for its richness and depth. Why did you decide to work in color for this project?

Photographs made in the Subway by a number of photographers were in black and white although I started working out in black and white, I decided to switch to color because the Subway was always thought of as a black and white subject—but I found a color meaning in the Subway. 

Your monographs are some of my favorites ever published, in particular Brooklyn Gang, East 100th Street, and Subway. What do you most enjoy about the process of making books?

The thing about books is that their understanding can last a long, long time. I didn’t need to wait around for a museum or institution to discover my photographs.

Bruce Davidson USA. New York City. 1966. East 100th Street.

Bruce Davidson USA. New York City. 1966. East 100th Street.

Reflecting back on the work you have done, what stands out to you as the most significant aspect of a life in photography?  

Well, basically all my bodies of work are all my children, but if I needed to choose one body of work, it would be East 100th Street where I dug in over a period of two years—a project that gave a sense of life on a city block.

All Photos: ©Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos, courtesy of Prestel.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.