A photograph by Bruce Davidson, showing a bus used by supporters of the American Civil Rights, guarded my the army

Learn from the Masters: Bruce Davidson

I have decided to start a new photography series: “Learn from the Masters”. I would like to introduce you to some of the most iconic photographers, who have shaped modern photojournalism, street photography and photo documentary. I believe that nothing will help you to improve as photographers as learning from the masters of this art and taking them as a reference point.

Every article will describe the life and achievements of each photographer and will be concluded by the lessons that we can learn from each master.

Career

Bruce Davidson was born in Oak Park in 1933. He started photographing at the age of 10, when he received his first camera from his single mother. The same mother, who played a crucial role in the life of the photographer by inciting Davidson to follow his passions autonomously and independently. Davidson’s mother also built him his first darkroom, where he learnt the basics of developing and printing.

Since the beginning of his passion, Davidson was fascinated by the possibility of making an image appear on the photographic paper from nowhere. He was incredibly attracted by this ‘magical’ process and still is today.

After graduating from high school, Davidson enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology at Yale University. During the college years, he kept photographing and refining his style. After university, Davidson was drafted into the US Army, where he had the chance of meeting Cartier-Bresson, who inspired him greatly.

Cartier-Bresson himself was astonished by the quality of the young photographer’s work. Cartier-Bresson stated that Davidson’s photographs looked more appealing than his own when the subject was looking away from the camera, while his photographs looked better when the subject was looking in camera.

Davidson joined Magnum Photography in 1958. In the following years he produced some of his most famous bodies of work, such as: Brooklyn Gang, The Circus and Time of Change. Thanks to the last aformenioned project, which is defined by esquire as:

the best photography book about the Civil Rights Movement. It unfolds like a great political drama,

Davidson received a Guggenheim fellowship and his project was displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Davidson’s next project was focused on documenting the situation of a very specific block in East Harlem. This project became a photo-book called East 100th Street. This project was later followed by an extensive documentation of New York subway.

These are just some of Davidson’s most well-known bodies of work. This great master, who is still in activity, is focusing on other projects, such as documenting the coexistence of nature and man-made constructions in Los Angeles.

Lessons Learnt:

1. Take Your Time

A photograph by Bruce Davidson, showing a dwarf - friend of the photographer - after a show at a circus

Bruce Davidson, 1958, Magnum Photos

Davidson declared in an interview to Leica the following:

It takes me a long time before understanding what I am looking at. It can take months. […] What I find is that young people stop too soon. They mimic something that they have seen. They would like to do something but they do not stay long enough.

This shows how different photographers require different times to realise the potential of what they are working on. It also takes a long time to cumulate enough of a good work to create a compelling body of work.

Therefore, we should first understand what is the time we need to feel comfortable and conscious about the project we are working on. It requires time, patience and hard work. After that we should keep working on the project long enough to become part of the work, to bond with our subjects and to start living their reality.

2. Be a Child

A photograph by Bruce Davidson, showing a bus used by supporters of the American Civil Rights, guarded my the army

Bruce Davidson, 1961, Magnum Photos

Davidson once said:

I was 10 years old and a friend of mine came by and he said: do you want to see me developing in my basement? […] So I went with Sammy in this dark, dank, midwestern basement with a ruby light and he exposed something to light and stacked a piece of paper into a tray of water – or what I thoughr to be water – and an image appeared. That really affected me. That passion of an image coming out of nothing is still there when I am in my darkroom, making my own prints. The same passion, the same magic appears.

This is a great example of a simple action that made Davidson interested into photography. This simple action looked like magic to the eyes of a child – and it would have had the very same effect to all of us at that age.

What is amazing is the ability of mantaining the very same astonishment and amazement after decades of work. After all this time, exposing a negative in the darkroom should become a routine. On the other hand, Davidson transformed this process into a ritual to stay more connected with his job,  the subjects he is working with and himself ultimately.

Indeed, Davidson also said:

The wonderful thing about being  in a darkroom is that this is my very personal space. I like it because this is kind of a spiritual place. I start at 4.35 in the morning and this is kind of a ritual. I feel most pure and I can look into my photographs and see what is really there.

3. Give Back

A photograph by Bruce Davidson, showing some of the members of the Brooklyn gang

Bruce Davidson, 1959, Magnum Photos

Photographing is not about receiving only, it should be about giving something back as well. Too often, we take photographs, in the sense of taking a piece of someone else’s reality and transfer it into our SD card or roll of film. However, we forget to something back in the process. This give-back is very subjective and could come under several different shapes. It could be a gesture, a smile, a brief chat with our subject or even a more tangible present.

For instance, Davidson used to give photographs to the subjects he was working with:

It was pretty much always my practice to offer pictures. Even to the Brooklyn gang I would give them pictures. It was a way of seeing them. It was a way for them of seeing me. So I was able of being invisible – almost –  to them because they were secured with me being around with my camera.

We see how Davidson was able to create a stronger bond with his subjects thanks to his practice. His subjects realised that the photographer was inoffensive and accepted him as one of the community. This practice allowed the photographer to open doors that would have been shut for many of his colleagues and most of us. This process allowed Davidson to demonstrate his subjects that he cared about them and was not taking advantage of them to then leave and forget about that reality.

 

4. Be Prepared to Be Brave

A photograph by Bruce Davidson, showing the grid trains of the New York subway

Bruce Davidson, 1980, Magnum Photos

Davidson created an astonishing body of work, called Subway. This photo-book documents the conditions of the New York subway in the ’80s. Davidson spent half a decade photographing the intricate and infamous underground system of the city. He realised that this practice was incredibly dangerous due to the high criminality level, which identified that specific location in the ’80s. Davidson was even more exposed to thieves and gangs due to the extensive use of flashes, which he deployed to contrast the darkness of the subway.

Nevertheless, Davidson was able to make stunning photographs in this hostile environment thanks to a curios approach:

I scheduled the way I would be in the subway the same way a tiger hunter would walk across a field to trail a tiger from the back. I was always aware that I might have been attacked from the rear on the subway – and actually I was. […] I could run kind of a dialogue of phantasy and the subway could become anything to me.

To me, this extrapolation from an interview demonstrates how brave Davidson was. He realised his limits and the impossibility of controlling such a broad and hostile space. However, he developed a strategy to photograph and minimise the risk exposure. Was he fearless? Absolutely not! Davidson was able to control his fears, he managed and transformed them into a strategy, which he leverage on to document such an inhospitable place.

5. Build a Relationship With Your Subjects

A photograph by Bruce Davidson, showing some children at a window in the controversial 100th street East Harlem block

Bruce Davidson, 1966, Magnum Photos

While photographing a block in East Harlem, which then became his controversial photo-book East 100th Street, Davidson immersed himself in the reality of his subjects.

Magnum Photography website describes this body of work as follows:

For two years in the late 1960s, Bruce Davidson photographed one block in East Harlem. He went back day after day, standing on sidewalks, knocking on doors, asking permission to photograph a face, a child, a room, a family. […] They are just like us, except they are poor and their skin maybe a different color. While this might not seem radical today, in 1968, this was extraordinary.

Davidson himself commented by saying:

I did not have any agenda. They just felt good that someone wanted to see them. That happens a lot with many bodies of work where people are glad you are there to see them. That someone is paying attention to them.

As photographers we should never underestimate that our objective is the one of documenting the reality before our lens. Too often the reality is forgotten or hidden. It might be too uncomfortable to be taken into consideration, unless we place it under the spotlight. I am amazed by this declaration of Davidson. I think that is amazing to realise that after blending with your subjects, you can really do something for them. You can build your body of work, while people are glad that you are doing that. Indeed they realise that you are photographing them to bring awareness on their conditions and situation.

Conclusion

Bruce Davidson is one of the most inspiring photographers I have ever researched on.

His proactive attitude, respect for the photographic processes and unique way to bond with his subjects should be embraced to become better photographers and aspire to a better and more ethical career.

Firstly, we should take our time to critically assess the goodness and value of the project we are working on. We should never give up too early, as this might prevent us from building an appealing body of work.

We should also keep approaching photography with the eyes and passion of a child, who discovers this medium for the first time.

We should never forget to build a relationship with our subjects. This implies that the photographic process is not about taking only. It is also – and especially – about giving back.

Moreover, we should be brave. This means managing our fears and transforming them into a strategy to approach any subjects, locations and environments in the safest way possible.

Finally, we should immerse ourselves in the reality we are trying to document. This is the only way to be accepted by the local communities and open doors once shut. This allows us to reach the real nature of our subjects, while placing the spotlight on uncomfortable realities.

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16 thoughts on “Learn from the Masters: Bruce Davidson”

  1. Agree wholeheartedly with your conclusions. I have been recently foraying into taking photos of people on the street with their permission as a way to give back and also be more of a social person that is part of this world we live in. I have met some really interesting people, beyond the photograph. I am doing it mostly to get over the fear of approaching people, as the project rather than a particular community.

    Wonderful blog btw 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great approach to fight the fear of approaching people. I think that this process is very productive in photography but also in any other aspects of our lives

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lesson 1, Take your time, is something I use everyday… I take pictures almost everyday, but I do check them (upload to my PC) once every 2 weeks. Sometimes even once a month.
    It gives me the opportunity to “re-discover” the picture and often the edit goes a complete different way than what I had in mind when releasing the shutter…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s incredibly interesting. I think that everyone is different and has a different approach to “taking your time”. My approach is quite similar to yours. I realise that offer the post processing leads me to quite different results. Probably because I made the photograph in a specific mood and edit it in another

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed, the mood is very important… and also the fact that, sometimes, you discover things on the picture you didn’t see when taking it 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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