The Most Important Stories of the 20th Century

Bruce Davidson is an American photographer known for his humanist and intimate approach to documentary style photography. Chronicling some of the most important stories of the 20th century, his photographs have profiled subject matters such as the Civil Rights Movement, subways, circus performers and the rise of the teen culture in America. These stories desire to reveal the complexities of individual lives and societal concerns. He has often photographed rebels, teens, activists and outsiders which highlighted underrepresented groups of midcentury America during a turbulent time in history.

Fascination through the Dark Room

Davidson was born in 1933 in Oak Park, Illinois. He became interested in photography at the early age of 10, however, his true fascination with the medium came when he accompanied a friend to a part time job in a commercial dark room. Davidson said,

“What happened in that dark basement in Illinois was a revelation. Light was flashed, a sheet of paper was placed in a tray of water, an image formed. That’s what caught me and drew me in – that mysterious process. It was a brief encounter, but one that has stayed with me to this day.”

From Education to Life Experiences

While attending the Rochester Institute of Technology and later Yale University, he furthered his passion and skill as a photographer. When he was drafted to the army after his studies, Davidson was stationed close to Paris. There, he met Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the founding members of the Magnum Agency. Following his discharge in 1957, Davidson worked as a freelance photographer for LIFE magazine, later becoming the youngest member of Magnum in 1958. Between the years 1958 and 1961, he produced some of the signature series of his career such as Brooklyn Gang, The Dwarf and Freedom Riders. The fellowship he received from Guggenheim allowed him to create a profound documentation of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

East 100th Street

The immersive, humanist and empathetic style that defined Bruce Davidson’s career is perhaps best presented in his series titled East 100th Street. The series is considered a classic document of inner cycle ghetto life, where Davidson extensively documented the life and struggles of one specific block, East 100th Street, in Harlem, New York for two years between 1966 through 1968. He had first caught a glimpse of the area riding a train from Harstdale to New York City around the 50s. Through the carriage window, he saw straight into the rooms of a row of East Harlem dwellings. Davidson recalls,

“Even then I wanted to get behind those walls and to encounter the invisible. More than a decade would pass before I entered that hidden world with my camera.”

Bruce Davidson, East 100th Street, 1966, Silver Gelatin Photograph
Bruce Davidson, East 100th Street, 1966, Silver Gelatin Photograph

Where the Civil Rights Movement Took Shape

Even though Harlem, at the time, was struggling with poverty and oppression, it was also where the Civil Rights Movement took shape. Bruce Davidson knew he needed to spend time in the neighborhood. He found an ‘in’ through the Metro North Citizen’s committee who granted him the permission to photograph the block if he agreed to present his images for review. In fact, the committee later used Davidson’s images as evidence of the sub-standard living conditions in negotiations with city officials. A powerful statement on the dignity of the community, Davidson’s images offer an intimate portrayal of the personal experiences of the African American and Puerto Rican families living in the area.

Bruce Davidson, East 100th Street (Teenage Couples on Stairwell and Street), 1966-68, Silver gelatin photograph
Bruce Davidson, East 100th Street (Teenage Couples on Stairwell and Street), 1966-68, Silver gelatin photograph

Respectfully Formal

Apart from the sociological significance of the series, they are also a testament to Bruce Davidson’s sensibility and responsibility as a photographer. The moral respect between Davidson and his subjects are an essential part of his practice. The compelling nature of the series stems from Davidson’s diligence, investment in time, and his ability to empathize with his subjects. On his approach to the series he says,

“I stay a long time. My eyes open to their lives. In my silence, they feel secure. My philosophy is to stay until it becomes a subject. I am an outsider on the inside.”

In order to prove his dedication to the assignment, Bruce Davidson decided against using a hand held camera and chose instead to work with a large view camera on a tripod. This would eliminate any concerns from the residents towards Davidson’s intentions, while forcing him to be open an vulnerable as a photographer. His method also gave the impression that the act of taking a photograph is respectfully formal.

Bruce Davidson, East 100th Street Social Club, 1966, Silver gelatin photograph
Bruce Davidson, East 100th Street Social Club, 1966, Silver gelatin photograph

East 100th Street Social Club

East 100th Street Social Club is one of the black and white images included in Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street series. A tender photograph, the viewer sees a man and a woman dancing next to a jukebox with the American flag and a portrait of John F. Kennedy above them. The image, like the rest of the series is tonally sharp yet reflect a romantic, human moment. It is a true reflection of how Davidson was able to capture the raw emotions and unfiltered realities of a marginalized community. While talking about his approach to his subjects he said,

“I didn’t want to be the unobserved observer. I wanted to be with my subjects face to face.”

And the viewer, just like Bruce Davidson did at that very moment, becomes an insider, witnessing a most authentic and intimate moment within the daily life of the community. His images of East 100th Street were later published as a book with the same title in 1970, and this long term study became one of the most famous, culturally significant reportages of his career. In the preface of the book Davidson wrote,

“I entered a lifestyle, and, like the people who live on the block, I love and hate it and I keep going back.”

Shining a Light on the Underrepresented

Bruce Davidson was part of the documentary style photography pioneers who emerged in the beginning of the 1960s. His work helped define and reflect some of the most historically and culturally significant events of the mid – 20th century America. From rebels to struggling communities, outcasts to isolated members of society, Bruce Davidson essentially photographed the human condition in the US throughout his career, shining a light on the underrepresented. His photographs often express his own desire to observe and understand the complexities of individuals and their communities. Davidson’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Times Magazine, LIFE, Vogue as well as other publications worldwide as well as being included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others. Davidson currently lives and works in New York.