By chance, a retrospective covering 60 years of Bruce Davidson’s work happened to be showing at the Fundación Mapfre in Barcelona while I was on holiday in Spain. Davidson (1933) is a Magnum photographer and worked for Time prior to joining Magnum. The foundation’s website describes the exhibition:
The exhibition contemplates a journey through the artist’s long career including some of his most famous series, such as Brooklyn Gang, East 100th Street and Time of Change: the Civil Rights Movement as well as his most recent works, Nature of Paris and Nature of Los Angeles.
The exhibition included around 200 prints in 16 different sections. Disappointingly, photography was strictly prohibited in the exhibition and this was being enforced strictly by the attendants. Therefore, I have no images to share of the exhibition space or photos. I purchased the substantial catalogue that accompanied the exhibition and will review that separately.
Points of note from the photos and narration accompanying the exhibition that could influence my own practice:
- Davidson was close to his subjects, getting to know them and sometimes becoming a part of their lives for months or even years. He describes him self as a humanist photographer. A humanist perspective can be defined as ‘a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially : a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason’ (Merriam-Webster.com). Many of his projects appeared to be attached to a cause, to show the human perspective of the subjects. I saw nothing of sensationalism in Davidson’s work.
- In the video, Making Contact, Davidson tells us how he likes to befriend his subjects, showing them a small portfolio of his work and giving away copies of the photos he takes. Davidson’s 1980s ‘Subway’ project, which he discusses in Tate Shots, contrasts with the covert approach used by Walker Evan’s in his 1938 project, ‘Many are called’.
- Eric Kim’s blog analyses Davidson’s approach from the perspective of a street photographer (though Davidson would not classify himself as such). What is interesting in Kim’s analysis is how the observed practice (and quotes from Davidson’s published works) is consistent with Davidson’s humanist perspective. The antithesis of Bruce Gilden’s approach to photography, which offers little concession to ethics (see post here).
- Many of the prints in the exhibition showed extreme contrast of light and dark (chiaroscuro), with attention drawn to the subjects through light. It appeared as if the effect was enhanced during processing, though Davidson’s use of flash could have also created this effect. This added an oppressive atmosphere to some of the photos – subjects coming out of the darkness surrounding them.
I admire Davidson’s approach to engaging with his subjects and attempting to understand their situation. I find it preferable to ‘stealing’ or ‘sneaking’ someone’s image; though appreciate that is perhaps the only way to capture a spontaneous, ‘decisive’ moment. However, for work that is closer to street portraiture than the capture of an unfolding, spontaneous scene, Davidson’s approach better reflects the way I like to meet and deal with people. I enjoy the social side-effects of the aphorism, There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet ( W.B. Yeats), when making photos.
Available from: http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/30538/1/bruce-davidson-how-to-get-up-close-and-personal-with-photography [accessed 26.6.16]
Eric Kim [website]. Available from: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2012/10/09/15-lessons-bruce-davidson-can-teach-you-about-street-photography/ [accessed 26.6.16]
Fundación Mapfre [website]. Available from: https://www.fundacionmapfre.org/fundacion/en/culture-history/our-exhibition-hall/exposicionesbarcelona/ [accessed 26.6.16]
Youtube. Bruce Davidson – Making Contact. Available from: https://youtu.be/8laXlcu5aHQ [accessed 26.6.16]
Youtube. TateShots: Bruce Davidson’s Subway. Available from: https://youtu.be/gY6o2C0O9V4 [accessed 28.6.16]