What We Learned From Bruce Davidson’s Lecture At The Phillips Collection

When you see a photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the sound you hear is of the shutter closing at 1/125th of a second.  When you see any of the photographs Bruce Davidson has taken over his long, distinguished career, the soundtrack is musical — for the pictures from his 1959 Brooklyn Gangs project, we hear Dion singing “A Teenager In Love;” Miles Davis’ trumpet haunts the pictures taken for the East 100th Street series; The Clash’s Sandanista, or maybe Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” accompany the images taken in 1980 deep in the New York subway system.  For Davidson is not merely a photographer whose lyrical, softly dramatic work lives in individual photographs.  He is a cinematic storyteller who emerges from deep within an atmosphere he’s inhabited with poignant, touching pictures that, yes, swirl with their own soundtrack.

Last night at the Phillips Collection, the 81-year old Davidson provided commentary on many of the pictures from his most celebrated series of images, stretching all the way back to the ’50s.  It was part of the Phillips Collection’s “American Moments” show, which for the first time displays works from the plucky little museum’s permanent collection of photography.  If the pictures in the show are any indication of what the Phillips Collection has in store for us as their focus on photography becomes more ambitious, Washingtonians are in for a delightful ride.  And if their choice of photographers to invite to speak is any indication, the Phillips Collection is intent on making a mark.

Bruce Davidson

Davidson is not a household name, even in households that care about photography; he’s an American master, a photographer’s photographer, less famous than contemporaries like Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz, but a giant in the world of 20th Century photography.  What was clear last night is that his humanity and commitment run deep: he could cite, by name, what has happened to members of that Brooklyn Gang 60 years after the pictures came out, knew what kind of life the children of sharecroppers he’d photographed in the 1960s ended up having once some of the barriers to their integration in American life had toppled.  He spoke with just a touch of pride about the impact his photographs had had, in knocking down racial barriers, in helping people in an impoverished community in Spanish Harlem be recognized for their dignity — and the intolerable housing conditions they lived in.

Meyerowitz used to talk about “tough pictures,” photographs that showed how real were the dangers the photographer used to put himself in to come back with an image.  And Davidson took his share.  But mostly his images reflect the degree of intimacy he had with his subjects, showing the people on East 100th Street what the work would look like, so they’d trust him.  He repeated the famous story of persuading a fellow with a scarred face who sat across from him on the subway and threatened to smash his camera, to let him take his picture.  He did it by engaging him, talking to him, showing him his work.  Getting street subjects to sit for a photograph is an act of seduction, he said.

He told us there are three things you can do to get a picture of someone.  You can sneak the photo, take it and run, or you can ask them.  This is a man who has made a career, for the most part, asking people and being told yes, because with his direct Midwestern sensibility and occasionally impish twinkle in his eye, he was jovially seductive.

Asked whether he could undertake multiple projects simultaneously, he said no, and likened his work to a “bullfighter getting in rhythm with the bull.”  This is not someone who shows up on a street, takes a snapshot and walks away.  He said he had patience, and surely he must have, and ingenuity in spades: he told the story of advancing a beach in Brooklyn where the gang said they would hang out the next night, and bringing a light bulb to screw into a socket he’d identified, knowing it would illuminate his subjects.

Immersing ourselves, as we have over the past few weeks, in the great Steidl three-volume collection, we found ourselves thinking of another photographer whose work would not automatically be compared to Davidson’s.  Sebastiao Salgado also tells stories in great project arcs, deeply immersing himself in the lives of his subjects, his individual photos amazing, his series even greater than the sum of the parts.  Growing up in Illinois, Davidson’s immersed himself in subcultures perhaps less exotic than Salgado’s, which isn’t surprising given the latter’s growing up in a remote Brazilian agricultural community right out of Garcia Marquez.  But there is the same sensibility, the same commitment, the humanity, and the turn, in his career’s last innings, to nature and more lyrical images.  He’s a hell of a photographer, and we are so glad to have heard him.

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