DAVIDSON'S TALENT for gaining the trust of the people he encounters have enabled him to penetrate the forgotten, the disenfranchised and the subversive fringes of society. From Brooklyn gangs to circus performers, from the tenants of East 100th Street living in abject poverty and the proponents of the Civil Rights Movement to Hollywood icons, all of Davidsonâ€™s photographs have one thing in common â€“ they do not judge and always respect those within them. His interest in ordinary people exposes the beauty and poetry within us all, regardless of social standing. Davidsonâ€™s photographsâ€™ continue to challenge any preconceptions of the world and most of all of each other.
Laura Noble: Can you tell me what path led you to photography and life behind a lens?
Bruce Davidson: I was introduced to photography when I was about ten years old. A real good friend of mine, Sammy Nichols, showed me his dark room. I went home later and I asked my mother if I could have a darkroom too. My mother emptied out my grandmother's jelly closet (pantry) in the basement. It was a small room not much bigger than I was. Anyway, I began to photograph.
When did you decide that this was something you would do permanently as a profession?
Immediately. I was attached to observing and photographing the light that I saw on the streets of Chicago.
What sort of camera did you use?
You know, my mother was a single parent raising my brother and myself and eventually married my stepfather who was a commander in the navy during the war. They issued Kodak cameras to the commanders in the navy, which looks like a large Leica, a Rangefinder 2Âº camera. He gave me that to use, so I had this wonderful professional camera. Also, after 4pm I worked at a camera store, dusting the cameras and cleaning the toilets and I got to play with all these cameras. Then I met a man called Al Cox and he had a studio in Chicago. He took me under his wing. He was quite a technician and taught me the technical stuff. Eventually we would go out and photograph for the 'paper in town.
"...she walked by me and she said: 'Bruce did you get those pictures?' I said: 'no Marilyn, I donâ€™t take insurance pictures' and that made a big impression on her"
So this must have stood you in good stead for college.
Yes, when I went to college I had some skills already. Again, in school, I would roam the streets of Rochester. One of my favourite's was a place called the Lighthouse mission, which gave free food to alcoholics and homeless men. I would photograph them. My parents gave me some money to invest and to learn the value of money â€“ my father was a businessman â€“ so I took the money and I bought a Leica. I lived on canned soup for a semester because I didnâ€™t want to spend any money on food. I had a hotplate and lived on vegetable soup. So that was another stepâ€¦
Was there a photographer at that time that inspired you?
There were two women in our class. I showed a great deal of passion for one of them. She showed me a copy of this book by a photographer that she really loved and that was Cartier-Bressonâ€™s The Decisive Moment. I thought to myself, if I could take pictures like this photographer she would fall in love with me too. I tried to imitate what I saw but it didnâ€™t work. The lovely young woman ran off with the English professor and I ended up with the book.
How did you become the youngest member of Magnum at aged only twenty-four (1958)?
From RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) I was drafted into the military and sent to a desert outpost in Arizona. After about nine or ten months I was stationed over in Paris with a special unit. One of the French soldiers invited me to his motherâ€™s house in Montmartre. After lunch I was standing out on the balcony looking down at a woman on the cobblestone street. My friend said: 'Oh that woman lives upstairs in a garret and she is the widow of a French impressionist painter by the name of Fauchet'. She was in her nineties then and had known Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin. We visited her that day and every weekend I could get away from the army camp. That body of work I decided to show Cartier-Bresson at Magnum Photos in Paris. He sat right next to me on a stool and looked at everything, particularly the contact sheets.
He is noted for his interest in contact sheetsâ€¦
â€¦to see if you had the rhythm and the way one enters the subject - that was very important. About a year later I was on the bus near Fifth Avenue and I saw him walking down the street. I jumped off the bus, ran up to him and he remembered me. Magnum Photos was right round the corner on 47th Street. So I ended up at Magnum photos and the rest is history.
Can you tell me about your recent exhibition The Nature of Paris at the MEP?(1)
The widow Mme. Fauchet had once taken me to a wonderful park and I wrote a proposal inspired by that park to go on to others. Itâ€™s about the visual relationship between the national monuments and nature. For example, the fact that you donâ€™t notice that next to the Eiffel Tower there is a 500-year-old tree. Itâ€™s about the visual structure of the manmade and natural.
Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side and your film became The Nightmare and Mrs. Kupkoâ€™s Beard, which is currently showing at The Jewish Museum, is a very different project.
I reached a point in my career where I was interested in film and I made one called Living off the Land, which won awards and I got a grant to do a film about a writer. But I no longer wanted to make documentary films. The idea was to find an unpublished short story and integrate the short story into the documentary, so thatâ€™s how the film was structured. That was a form that hadnâ€™t been explored before - mixing fact with fiction. So when I got the Fellowship I asked him to choose a short story to use and that became The Nightmare and Mrs. Kupkoâ€™s Beard.
"Joan Crawford treated me like one of her family. Today you would have six different public relations people protecting these stars. Youâ€™re not gonna get any cookies now"
Do you keep in touch with any of your past subjects?
Iâ€™m still in touch with a number of people and some of the community leaders - who are now quite elderly - from East 100th Street. I go up there quite a lot.
Do you think that your pictures were the catalyst for the improvement of the area?
Well, two things. I gave people prints of themselves so they could see themselves and the context of the work, what was real at the time. Over the years they could compile these photographs and bring them to the mayorâ€™s office and show their conditions. They were kind of a calling card for the community. Then, when the book came out in 1970, I gave them a number of copies so that they could show them. Mildred Feliciano was - and still is - an art activist. (She) mentions, in the new edition of the book, that the pictures and the book were helpful.
One of your gifts is the relationship and trust felt between you and your subjects. You once told me a story about Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfitsâ€¦
Thatâ€™s right. The scene called for Marilyn to ride a horse and there was a corral and they put Marilyn on the horse. I was sitting on top of the corral fence, posed there with my camera and she started to ride the horse. It got caught on some wire or something which caused the horse to shy and it started to buck. Miller and Huston rushed to the rescue and got her down and she walked by me and she said: 'Bruce did you get those pictures?' I said: 'no Marilyn, I donâ€™t take insurance pictures' and that made a big impression on her. You know a movie star doesnâ€™t like to be photographed putting on makeup, or just before they go on, or studying their lines. But after that, she let me take those pictures rather than just simple shots.
The contrast of photographing movie stars then and now must be tangible?
In the early sixties I was working for Vogue Magazine, doing some portraits for them. They asked me to photograph Joan Crawford. I went over to her apartment and knocked on her door and there she was in her bathrobe. She said: ' What would you like me to wear?' So, she took me to her bedroom and opened the closet and I picked out what she would wear. Then she said: 'Are you hungry I just baked some cookies, would you like a cookie?' - and she gave me a cookie. Joan Crawford treated me like one of her family. Today you would have six different public relations people protecting these stars. Youâ€™re not gonna get any cookies now.
Your work in England and Scotland shows us how much has changed since 1960?
Yes, it was after the war and before The Beatles, before what it is today - remnants of a time where people were still recovering from the war. There were not too many cars on the road and people were still wearing Derbyâ€™s to the bank, so Iâ€™m very fond of that work.
What advice would you give to someone starting out now?
One thing I remember from my civil rights days (is) to go early and stay late, in other words: things happen when you least expect them. Along with that, go back and back again and even if it is a portrait of a friend - do it over a period of time, a period of situations. To be open and explore the material thoroughly before you go onto another project. To understand that image you have to go deeper. I always say take the picture the night before. If you set it up, leaving a negative in the enlarger overnight that you really want to print - you are up and ready to go the next day.
PHOTOICON is grateful to Bruce Davidson and Magnum Photos for permission to use the images featured in this article.
N O T E S
1) Maison EuropÃ©ene de la photographie
Circus by Bruce Davidson is available published by Steidl
Exhibition: Isaac Bashevis Singer And The Lower East Side is at The Jewish Museum, New York until 3 February 2008