The men and women of Bruce Davidson’s photographs are unglamorous, un-beautiful — unsightly, even. A man with a beetling brow features prominently in a photograph taken in a scrappy New York City cafeteria; in another, a sallow-faced woman gazes into some middle distance, one hand proffering an old photograph of herself and her husband. In it, they’re both young, hopeful, and handsome, a far cry from the dim café gloom of the present.
And yet, and yet: there’s a certain beauty to the bluntness of Davidson’s lens. There’s nothing transcendent about Davidson’s work — not in the dictionary sense of the word (hear no hallelujah chorus when you’re viewing his photographs). This is life as it is, the photographs seem to say: gritty, grungy, un-gorgeous. Davidson found this pore and turned an unflinching eye on its subjects. The resultant photographs are transcendent in the sense that they draw their viewers deep into the simultaneous cruelty and beauty of 1960s America.
The de Young’s new exhibit on Davidson’s work, running until September 11th, showcases the photographer’s work in 1960s Los Angeles, New York, and the South during the Civil Rights movement. Across three regions of the country, Davidson managed to provide a concise summary of the decade’s contradictory claims to war and peace.
In keeping with his reputation for photographing unlikely subjects, Davidson set out in 1959 to document the teenaged gangs of New York City. He followed The Jokers — a ragtag band of Brooklyn boys and girls — over the course of a year. In most of Davidson’s photographs, the boys are tattooed and shirtless. In a few shots, they’re flexing wiry arms. With all the swaggering invincibility of youth, they’re as bad as they could ever hope to be. Among Davidson’s photographs of The Jokers, however, one stands apart — in it, a few gang members are huddled together in the grass. Eyes closed, vulnerable in their repose, they’re curled around one another like puppies. It’s a singly innocent shot — how different they are, in their huddle, from the young toughs in those other photographs, cigarettes dangling from sneering lips.
Time of Change, Davidson’s series on the Civil Rights movement taken from 1961 to 1965, continues this narrative of shaken idealism. For all the purported progressiveness of the 60s, the legacy of Southern slavery lived on through the sharecropping system (by then, tenant farmers were already being replaced by machines). Davidson’s photograph of a South Carolina sharecropper and her white employer has the kind of quiet drama characteristic of Renaissance paintings — in the left half of the frame, the woman sharecropper stands in contrapposto on a bale of cotton, her eyes cast downwards. Her hand is outstretched to receive a few coins from a white man. We can’t see his face, but we can see hers, and her mouth is tight and downturned.
Davidson’s 1964 Los Angeles photographs are a more light-hearted exposition of a city and its residents. Before Davidson’s honest lens, everyone becomes a character, and subtle details of dress and personality make themselves known. A photograph of a woman pushing a shopping cart only yields its secrets upon second inspection — note, then, her voluminous hair and questioning frown and the contents of her cart (a Toulouse-Lautrec painting, of all things). This, against the backdrop of the city’s thriving car culture: there are photographs of parked cars, cars at a drive-in, cars viewed from an overpass. It seems that Los Angeles was — and still is — a city of cars, good surfing, palm trees, and unfailing sunshine. There’s no evidence here of the unrest in the South. In the thick of the Vietnam War, a few years before the Summer of Love in San Francisco, Davidson might’ve documented a rare moment of peace in one of America’s largest cities.
Davidson had been sent to Los Angeles on assignment for Esquire; his photographs for the magazine were later rejected. It’s our good luck that Davidson kept the photographs among his belongings. Better sooner than later — so goes the old chestnut — but better later than never.
Photos courtesy of the de Young and Magnum Photos.