15 Lessons Bruce Davidson Can Teach You About Street Photographyby ERIC KIM on OCTOBER 9, 2012
(All photographs in this article are copyrighted by Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos / Steidl) Bruce Davidson is a photographer that I deeply look up to and admire. He first started taking pictures when he was around 10 years old, and has now shot for a span of over 60 years. He has covered many important political issues, such as the freedom riders as well as local issues such as the impoverished state of East 100th Street in New York City, and the dilapidated subway. He is truly a photographers photographer as he shoots, develops, and prints all of his photographs by himself and during his working career would live like a monk. Davidson refuses to define himself or his photography. He doesnt agree with the documentary, journalism, or fine art classification (even less with street photographer). However I feel that his photographs appeal to many street photographers- and there are many lessons of wisdom that he can teach all of us about street photography.This article will cover a little bit of background history of Bruce Davidson as well as what us street photographers can learn from his photography and philosophy. Also note that this article is very in-depth and long. Brew yourself a strong cup of coffee and dive in!
Bruce Davidsons Biography
Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos / Steidl
Bruce Davidson was born in 1933 in Illinois, and has been a part of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency since 1958 after being invited to join by Henri Cartier-Bresson himself.To track Davidsons start in photography, at the age of 10 his single-mother built him a darkroom in their basement and was taught the technical aspects of photography by a local photographer.After graduating high school, he attended the Rochester Institute of Technology and Yale University, where he continued his learning in photography.
After his military service, in 1957 Davidson worked briefly as a freelance photographer, and joined Magnum the following year (having met Henri Cartier-Bresson while stationed in Paris as a soldier). During these golden years he photographed extensively, taking photos of two of his famous projects, Brooklyn Gang a project on troubled teenage youth in the area and The Dwarf a circus-dwarf named Jimmy Armstrong that he befriended which showed the various levels of emotional complexity that Jimmy faced as a performer. From 1961 to 1965, Davidson produced one of his most famous bodies of work, Time of Change in which he followed the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Riders around the United States, in both the North and South. This project awarded him the first National Endowment for the Arts grant ever given to a photographer. Davidsons next project, East 100th Street is probably his most famous bodies of work, in which he photographed an infamously run-down block in East Harlem for two years. Using a 45 large-format view camera, he befriended many of the locals and constantly gave out prints from the project that he worked on. Through the project you get a very intimate look into the lives of people in East 100th Street both the difficulties they faced as well as the joys. To follow up East 100th street, he worked on Subway in the late 1970s, when the subway in New York City was a very sketchy and dangerous place. Instead of using black and white (his typical medium), he photographed the subway in color which gave the photographs a sense of vibrancy and sexiness that he wanted to convey. A decade later he worked on a project on Central Park for 4 years, steering clear of the typical clichs and showing it as a unique and inseparable part of New York City. Currently at the age of 79, Davidson isnt settling down. He is currently working on a project in Los Angeles documenting the juxtaposition between nature and the city.
Lessons Bruce Davidson can teach you about street photographyOnce again to clarify, Davidson doesnt like to categorize his type of photography, and would certainly disagree with calling himself a street photographer. However I feel out of all the
photographers out there, he has had one of the strongest impacts on my photography in terms of his humanitarianism, interest in social issues, as well as his love and compassion for his subjects. For this post I have done research from Bruce Davidsons Subway, and his newest publication Black+White a 5-volume set of his projects Circus, Brooklyn Gang, Time of Change, East 100th Street, and Central Park, published by Steidl. I have also scoured the Internet for video and text-based interviews to base this article off. If there are any errors in this article, please mention it in the comments below.
1. Become part of the community
Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos / Steidl
Bruce Davidson shares the story of how he became part of the community in East 100th Street:I came to 100th Street with a large format camera on a tripod. I wanted depth and detail and I wanted to meet the people eye to eye. I wanted the photograph to happen without intruding. The children called me the picture man. They said take my picture. I took their picture. I took photographs of them, they took my photographs. Can I have another picture? I gave them another picture. Can you make a couple of more prints? I gave them a couple of more prints. They received their pictures and I received mine. I saw my pictures hanging all over the place. Sometimes when I photographed a family of a person again, I had to take down my own pictures. (East 100th Street)
As street photographers, the connections that we build with our subjects is often very shallow or non-existent. After all, that is the working style of street photography. We see a subject or a scene we want to capture, we take the photograph, wave hello or thank them and move on.However the way that Davidson worked was totally different he spent a lot of time in each area, getting to know the people and having them collaborate with him. When he first came to East 100th street, people were a bit suspicious of him. However over time they warmed up to him through him giving out prints, talking with the locals, and even having them take his photograph. When I shot in Downtown LA, one of the places I shot a lot was the Fashion District. It first started off through a show I co-curated with The Think Tank Gallery in which we shot one-square block for a week straight. Each of the chosen photographers would then exhibit their 3 best shots in the show, in which the community were all invited to attend.
A photograph I took in the Fashion District for the YOU ARE HERE Exhibition, 2011This gave me a wonderful opportunity to get to know the people of the community better. I would walk around the entire Fashion District, saying hello to the store vendors and to the
people who frequented the area often. At first shooting in the area I felt a bit out-of-place and awkward, but over time I started to feel very comfortable as many of the locals started to recognize me and say hello. I feel just because we are street photographers doesnt mean that we should always be hidden and stealth. Sometimes interacting with the people you photograph both makes you and them feel much more natural. Not only that, but collaborate with the neighborhoods you may shoot in. Sure shoot your candid street photography, but also take posed portraits of locals in the area- and hand them prints. It will make them much more appreciative of your company, and will also give you the opportunity to give them something.
2. How to approach your subjects
Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos / Steidl
When Bruce Davidson was photographing the NYC subway, he admitted to being quite timid at times approaching strangers to photograph. He describes in this excerpt from Subway the different ways he approached his subjects:
I dealt with this in several ways. Often I would just approach the person: Excuse me, Im doing a book on the subway and would like to take a photograph of you. Ill send you a print. If they hesitated, I would pull out my portfolio and show them my subway work; if they said no, it was no forever. Sometimes, Id take the picture, then apologize, explaining that the mood was so stunning I couldnt break it, and hoped they didnt mind. There were times I would take the pictures without saying anything at all. But even with this last approach, my flash made my presence known. When it went off,
everyone in the car knew that an event was taking place the spotlight was on someone. It also announced to any potential thieves that there was a camera around. Well aware of that I often changed cars after taking pictures.
Davidson also shares a similar concept in another interview:I carried this little album of my work. I have three choices. If I see someone in this beautiful mood, ill go up to them and ask them, Id like to take a picture of that mood. If they say yes, I ask if they can get back into that mood. Not everyone can do that. Or, if the said no, then I took out the album and they saw the work. Or I took it, and ran like hell. I had those three choices in the subway.
I feel as street photographers we should also use our judgment to try different ways to approach strangers when shooting in the streets. Whenever Im shooting in the streets, I try to judge a situation or a scene, which dictates how I will take a photograph of somebody. Similar to Davidson, if I see an interesting gesture or a moment that I dont want to interrupt, Ill quickly approach and take the photograph without permission. This is how I would say I photograph 95% of the time. Then after this I generally will talk with the person and see how they are, explain why I took the photograph (if they had a beautiful look or