The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2016

All Issues
OCT 2016 Issue
Art Books

Bruce Davidson: Survey

Text by Charlotte Cotton, Carlos Gollonet, Frits Gierstberg, and Francesco Zanot

(Aperture and Fundación Mapfre, Fall 2016)

A photograph, like a chance or an oath, is something taken. This is an idiom that goes unexamined. But the verb also implicitly charges photography with some unspoken crime, a visual theft or trespass. In 1966, photographer Bruce Davidson set himself the task of mailing each of his subjects a print of their portraits; in reversing the idiom, by literally giving his subjects their photographs, Davidson suggests that images, especially tangible ones, can restore our sense of belonging in the world.

In the tradition of Robert Frank and Danny Lyon, Davidson sought, in his work, to become a devout witness of the multiplicity of American existence. Frame by frame, he alibied a plurality of experiences, building an oeuvre out of gaining access to people, areas, and subcultures other photographers couldn’t get close to. The new monograph Bruce Davidson: Survey contemplates Davidson’s ample output through an abbreviated retrospective that spans nearly six decades and samples every series he has created—from his early documentation of Brooklyn street gangs to his edenic Central Park tributes. The monograph suggests that, while so many artists worship timelessness, Davidson understood that truer meanings can be found in its opposite, which is ultimately all we are given and all we are left with: simply time.

Time of Change (1961 – 1965),his photo-essay on the civil rights movement, is incisive with its moral energy: white police detaining black marchers, portraits of civil rights leaders, streets choked with people. These photographs were taken by someone who knew how to divine what Henri Cartier-Bresson termed a decisive moment—that instant when an untaken photograph arranges itself before a lens. Yet many of these images are left unframed by any immediate context. In one photograph of a woman being doused by a high-pressure fire hose, Davidson’s eye renders the jet as a brilliant white band of sun; briefly, one could be forgiven for believing her to be twirling raptly in a fire hydrant’s fountain, a vision of liberation rather than oppression. It’s an image of appalling beauty. Another photograph foregrounds a woman held at both wrists by two officers, a cinema marquee in the background promising “SUSPENSE!” and “EXCITEMENT!”

Davidson beheld quieter scenes in this series as well: a young girl seen through the honeycombed pattern of a migrant camp’s fence, a black couple dancing blearily by a jukebox playing whatever we imagine it to. Davidson was just as capable working with the intimacies of shared spaces (streets, kitchens, bars, subway cars) as he was testifying to moments of historical turbulence. We are to understand Time of Change as documentary coverage, but also as art, two worlds Davidson refuses to cordon off from each other.

“Davidson lived out the prospect that his photographs could contribute to real social change,” writes Charlotte Cotton in an essay for the book. Yet Davidson rejects the label of social-documentary photography, a genre that, unlike fine art, simultaneously endorses the viewer’s right to comprehend while revoking their license to imagine.Freighted with narrative and pathos, Davidson’s work—the totality of which depicts mothers, fathers, activists, circus performers, Klansmen, truants, those living in urban and rural poverty—compels his largely middle- and upper-class viewers to reckon with the unfamiliar, to interrogate their beliefs about America and what, or who, is worth seeing.

If Time of Change concerned itself primarily with indexingvisual anthems of social justice, East 100th Street (1966 – 1968), found its resonance in the hushed ignitions of pain and possibility in the urban poor. Like Jacob Riis, Davidson sought to depict the woeful reality of housing conditions in New York City, employing a stark formalism and emotive texture to wreak an abrupt beauty upon squalor. The photos in East 100th Street seem audible: the remote wail of a baby from down the corridor, the placebo hum of an electric fan in the summer swelter. Davidson’s images call upon senses other than simply sight—perhaps an explanation for why they are commonly called “cinematic,” an adjective that, although cliché, describes his blend of mise-en-scène and motion. It’s no surprise to learn from this survey that Davidson originally intended to film a documentary around his Harlem residency.

Davidson spent months familiarizing himself with the residents of East 100th Street, using a stationary, large-format camera rather than a more mobile handheld one to convey an air of approachability and curiosity. By prescribing patience, the large-format camera traded the freedoms of temporal thrift for those of slowness; in place of grainy, galvanic snapshots are detailed, rooted moments that relay the everyday intimacies of those who lived them. Many portraits capture tenants in their cramped abodes, some lying in bed naked or disconsolate. In Cotton’s insightful introduction to these pictures, she likens the beds to “small islands of visual calm and personal space,” and it is true that the photographed appear marooned—stranded, somehow, at home.

Another accumulative photography project—Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes (2010), a selection of startling Google Street View screenshots from around the world—inspired me to take a virtual cruise through the same neighborhood Davidson photographed in the ’60s. Online, the faces of its contemporary residents are blurred, and so too is the line between representation and erasure. Luxury rentals coexist alongside the same pixelated basketball courts and housing projects that appear in Davidson’s series. And although today one may likely turn to Google to learn about the neighborhood, this newer, more literal mode of street photography—with its forfeit of privacy, unauthored ambience, and implicit claim of omniscience—illustrates why Davidson’s art is so urgent today, in a visual culture governed by immediate accessibility. The power of Davidson’s work resides in his trained enunciation of human expression.

The acme of this radical intimacy is found in Davidson’s “Subway” series (1980), which comprises photographs of New York City subway users. Walker Evans had attempted a similar enterprise decades before, titled Many Are Called. Yet because of the illegality involved then in taking pictures on public transit, Evans’ chthonic photos—taken with a smuggled-in 35mm camera—share the forensic style of a mugshot. This was not portraiture as much as information collected for amusing posterity. Davidson’s subway visions, on the other hand, are anything but informational or voyeuristic. The train becomes a stage in which a camera’s flash blanches the dark in a search for vulnerability. Skin lit from a camera’s strobe achieves a chiaroscuro that draws attention to both those who braved the flash and, implicitly, the man who kept himself in the dark. Jaggedly tagged symbols and phrases in Sharpie fill each frame, inner-city glyphs turned runic amid the decay of late-’70s New York. The passengers’ expressions, like the graffiti, are mostly unreadable. 

Yet the illegibilities of Subway alsospell its allure. Davidson could have taken the premise of underworld portraiture to turn the decrepit network of public transportation into an embodiment of larger failed political systems. But instead he chose the time and place—New York City transit, 1980—to both anonymize and unanonymize. His Subway photographs detonate, giving off low-pitch frequencies unshakable for days, so low you forget they’re there. In one face you see other faces, perhaps even your own.

In his original accompanying essay, Davidson tellingly calls the subway a “social equalizer,” a role that street photographers might also aver in their quest to capture a city’s social strata. Unlike Diane Arbus, who used the camera as a mechanism to reflect her own experience of seeing, Davidson saw portraiture not only as a way to remember—itself a politically charged act—but a way to venerate existence itself. It was important to Davidson that the strangers he got to know in the darkroom would be proud to exhibit their likenesses on their living room wall—would know that they, too, are seen.

Flipping through Survey, it’s hard not to wonder who is truly seeing inside the United States today. Some of the images in East 100th Street form ocular slant rhymes with more recent photographs by Deana Lawson and Carrie Mae Weems. Like the work of Paul Graham—whose muted, Chekhovian episodes of American poverty question a viewer’s own curiosity—Davidson’s glimpses of mundanity and hardship are often sublimed, perhaps at a slight ethical cost, to poetry.

Aperture’s monograph is an aesthetic event, with more than three hundred sensitively designed pages laid out to guide readers slowly through an abridged, but essential, body of work. Most of these pictures appeared first in easily degradable populist magazines like Life and Look. Survey more deliberately preserves Davidson’s vision. Magnum Legacy published their own Bruce Davidson: An Illustrated Biography with text by art critic and historian Vicki Goldberg earlier in the year, and so the arrival of Aperture’s retrospective invites comparison. Goldberg’s text is just as educational, if less baroque, than Aperture’s, but is woven throughout the book (half the size of Survey) in a way that competes with the images. Magnum’s book rightfully includes Davidson’s experiments with color film found in Subway, while Aperture curiously forgoes them, reproducing instead only those of the monochrome aesthetic that dominated fine arts and documentary photographers for the first half of last century. That’s unfortunate. The chromatic images—rendered with a loyal palette of chipped yellows, dull aluminum, and vicious crimsons—rewarded what was then a bold risk.

Curiously, the more recent projects included in Aperture’s tomeare less triumphant. Unpeopled and zoomed out to survey the organic geometry of destinations like Paris and Hollywood, they lack the urgency and implication of his portraits. Shots of vandalized cacti and big skies might as well belong in your Instagram feed alongside the other travel imagery jetsam. And it’s worth noting that Davidson now does have an official account on the photo-sharing service, where his masterpieces are marshaled under obvious hashtags and declarations that the working week is almost over. But one is more likely to stumble upon his images there—portraiture matched against the ubiquity of self-portraiture—than in any gallery or museum. It’s a profile worth following simply for the rare moment during scrolling when a Davidson portrait lands beneath one’s thumb, and one of those truly unrepeatable images appears, suspending, for a moment, every liability.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2016

All Issues