Breathtakingly fast and excruciatingly slow: Before the introduction of digital cameras, a photographer worked in that parallel time frame. The click of the shutter was instantaneous, but then the film had to be developed, the contact sheets or color slides reviewed and selected for printing.
Pressed for time, a working photographer usually makes these decisions in a hurry. In old age, there is time to reconsider. Bruce Davidson, who turns 90 next month, has been reviewing his archives for the past eight years. In “The Way Back,” both titles are now at an exhibition Howard Greenberg Galleryin New York, and a more compendious book To be published this fall, he is presenting photos he had overlooked, putting them on public view for the first time.
In a 2015 interview, Davidson named for me some of the photographers he thought had taken the art form to “a new point of departure”: Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus. He did not include himself. He knows that he has followed the path blazed by the pioneers. What makes him remarkable is the sympathy which prevails over his subjects and the dogged persistence of his investigations.
Frank, perhaps Davidson’s greatest influence, restlessly tried to portray scenes and people new to him; This is one reason why he did not enjoy or succeed in the lucrative job of creating photo essays for Life magazine. In contrast, Davidson likes the same thing to me over months or years, getting so close to people that you feel you know them yourself.
Davidson entered professional photography at Life. Fascinated by cameras since the age of 10, he was encouraged by his stepfather, who advised him to apply to the Rochester Institute of Technology. From there, he went on to study photography at Yale, where his photographs of the college football team earned five pages in Life. In his 20s, he began his professional career.
In an early series of circuses in 1958, he became close photograph Jimmy Armstrong, a clown with dwarfism. He showed Armstrong playing the trumpet in a shabby bedroom, depositing cash in a bank window, performing in makeup and costumes, and eating a sandwich alone at dinner. The book “The Way Back” contains another version of the Trumpet photo previously published, taken from a greater distance and a lower angle to reveal Armstrong’s residence. It reveals more but provides slightly less impact. It made me think of an alternate version of a jazz singer, where you understand the lyrics better but lose a bit of the mood.
The danger of boundless sympathy is sentimentality, a pitfall that occasionally leads to a young Davidson in his films, including Armstrong and another favorite subject, an elderly Parisian widow. His breakthrough came soon, in 1959, when he embedded himself with a gang of Brooklyn teenagers who ruled some turf on the pre-Madhu Park slope. Like a spotting match, the kids saunter, premp and canoodle for Davidson’s camera, before they unwittingly succumb — as Davidson’s wife, Emily Haas Davidson, in a 1998 interview with a former gang member — attributed to addiction, depression and suicide.
A classic photograph (which surpasses anything else in this collection of outtakes) depicts a beautiful young woman with extraordinary brow furrows, smoking a cigarette and pushing back her hair, as she looms, intelligent and spiteful, over three of her friends who are huddled on a blanket in Prospect Park. (In the gallery, he can be seen, as charismatic as ever, in another shot where he joins them on a blanket.) It’s a memorably poignant image that would make a beautiful pendant to one of the Brooklyn Gang pictures in the Greenberg show — a boy standing on a busy street, cup of rain in hand. catching up
Along with Brooklyn Gang, which is best represented, the gallery features alternate takes on two other major Davidson projects: his documentation of the civil rights struggle in the South in the ’60s, with which he toured with the Freedom Riders; and a two-year immersion with a large-format camera among the hard-pressed Hispanic and black residents of East 100 Street in East Harlem. In both cases, he crossed racial divides and won the confidence of his subjects.
But the two images that stick with me from this rediscovered trove are from lesser-known ventures. Both feature women with big hair. In a photo taken in the Bronx in 1963, a young Hispanic man clutches a box of what appears to be a candy bar in one hand as he carries a woman whose white headband is accenting a bouffant flip. Her gaze at the photographer — and therefore at the viewer of the photograph — is what grips you: direct, stern and intelligent beyond her years.
The other portrait was taken in Yosemite National Park in 1965, part of a series of Davidson resting at a campsite. A poignant response to Carleton Watkins’ photographs of the desert made there a century ago, Davidson’s images show how Yosemite in this period is not for adventurers but for civilian tourists, like a stunning beehive-haired young woman sitting quietly at a picnic. The table is loaded with its provisions. A large gas-guzzling car is parked across from it. Sharp but not mocking, like the Yosemite picture, civil rights, and the East 100th Street project, Davidson’s report was about what he found in America. Not doom-saying or starry-eyed, he was simply observant. And honest.
Bruce Davidson: The Way Back
Through Sept. 16, Howard Greenberg Gallery, 41 East 57th St., Manhattan; 212 334-0010, Howardgreenberg.com