Bruce Davidson

Moments of humanity

When, as a child, Bruce Davidson entered a darkroom for the first time, it changed his life: He was enthralled by the “miracle” of image development using chemicals and took his first photos at the age of ten. In the meantime, he looks back on a career as a photojournalist spanning more than half a century. Davidson has been a member of the legendary Magnum Photos agency since 1958 – a fortunate collaboration in many respects, after all Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great European photographer and one of the agency’s founders, was not only a strong inspiration for Davidson’s work from early on, but also later became his mentor. Surprisingly, perhaps, since their methods differed considerably: While Cartier-Bresson preferred to be “invisible” when taking pictures in public and photographed his motifs from a safe distance, most of Davidson’s protagonists show the proximity between the photographer and his subjects, both spatially and emotionally.

Such devoted attentiveness is also reflected in Davidson’s attitude to work: His series of images and photographic essays are often the result of uncompromising research and intensive work over periods of months or even years. For example, he spent the entire spring and summer of 1959 with the New York gang The Jokers, a group of unruly boys from Brooklyn. Davidson quickly got to know and like the 15 to 16-year-olds, a feeling that was reciprocated. Based on this mutual sympathy, he created a series of images that shows as much the empathy with which he approached the youths as it does their cool poses, boisterous fooling about and at times deeply sad loneliness. The images are full of vitality and sensitivity, while revealing the turmoil of growing up: At an age when an overwhelming thirst for action and love of life predominates, the danger of taking a wrong step also lurks.

Davidson’s career as a photojournalist did not always follow a predictable path: After a short period working as a set photographer in Hollywood, where he accompanied among others the shooting of John Huston’s “The Misfits” and portrayed Marilyn Monroe at the height of her world fame, he tried his luck as a fashion photographer. However, he quickly noticed that this glamour genre could not satisfy his curiosity for unconventional characters and fascinating locations in the long term. From 1961 to 1965, he documented the at times bitterly fought battles surrounding the civil rights movement in America, where he encountered injustice and violence such as he had never seen before. He experienced these years as a time of self-discovery, during which he finally found his professional home as a photographer. From his passion for the circus and the people who work in it to his series about the changes in Harlem during the 1990s, his photographs have enhanced the pictorial memory of our culture.

Biographical information

1933

born in Oak Park, Illinois, USA

1951 – 1954

studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York and Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

1957

begins working for Life magazine

1958

becomes a member of Magnum Photos

1960

publishes his first photobook Brooklyn Gang

1961

awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship

1963

first solo exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art, New York

1982

solo exhibition in the International Center of Photography, New York

2004

honoured with the Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Documentary Photography from the Lucie Foundation, Los Angeles, California

2007

awarded the Gold Medal Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Arts Club, New York

lives and works in New York, New York, USA.