Bruce Davidson gained notoriety in humanistic documentary photography in 1959 when he created a series depicting a Brooklyn youth gang who called themselves The Jokers. Brooklyn Gang stands as one of the first in-depth photographic records of rebellious postwar youth culture conveying a sense of the time and feelings of an “outsider” group looking for a sense of identity. As in his other series from the late 1950s and early 1960s that concern fringe social groups, Davidson would fully immerse himself with The Jokers for several months. They accepted him as an individual with a need to belong. As a documenter who was on the inside looking out, Davidson revealed his photographic subjects and uncovered their lives with all of its tenderness and tragedy. Davidson says,
“I was twenty-five and they were about sixteen. I could easily have been taken for one of them. My way of working is to enter an unknown world, explore it over a period of time, and learn from it… In time they allowed me to witness their fear, depression and anger. I soon realized that I, too, was feeling their pain. In staying close to them, I uncovered my own feelings of failure, frustration, and rage.”
Girl Combing Hair in Mirror
The well-known image, “Girl Combing Hair in Mirror” from the series shows two members of The Jokers at a Coney Island bathhouse the gang would frequent. It focuses on an unforgettable reflection of a beautiful young girl who Davidson photographed several times and portrays the close attention that adolescents pay to their appearance with all their insecurities and anxiousness. A former gang member named Bengie, commenting later on the famous image said,
“Beautiful Cathy was there, always with her honey, Junior. I don’t think Cathy ever wore a bathing suit on the beach. She was always dressed in her nicely ironed clothes, and her hair and makeup were something. She was always sad, always fixing her hair.”
Immortalizing Passing Moments in the Lives of Youths
Davidson immortalized these passing moments in the lives of the youths in an elegant and evocative way effectively capturing not only an image of the time, but also many larger human feelings. Recognized for his uncanny talent with the camera, Davidson joined Magnum the same year as Brooklyn Gang and received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1962. In 1963 John Szarkowski, the photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented Davidson’s pictures in a solo show and he was also the first recipient of a photography grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966. He used it to create the highly influential series East 100th Street documenting an apartment block in East Harlem. This once again highlighted everyday realities of life and impressions of our times while preserving them for the future.