When photographer Bruce Davidson presented his influential and controversial depiction of a poverty-ridden stretch of Harlem in 1970, titled “East 100th Street,” he described the work as “worlds within worlds,” which is actually a good description of the approach he has taken since he launched his career in the late ’50s. From his evocative portraits of carnival life in The Dwarf and the Clyde Beatty Circus in 1958 to his behind-the-scenes images of the cast and crew on the troubled shooting of The Misfits in 1960 to his haunting 1965 studies of the Welsh coal fields and their hard-scrabble residents, Davidson has been drawn to subcultures and tight-knit communities, rarely glimpsed in detail by anyone except the people who inhabit them.
Jackson Fine Art has put together a small but potent sampler of his work that balances his signature black-and-white work, represented here by images from “The Brooklyn Gang” series in the rear gallery, with archival pigment prints from “In Color,” his lesser-known work in the field of color photography that was recently published as a monograph by Steidl.
Davidson’s ability to blend in and assimilate himself into whatever milieu he is exploring gives his work an immediacy and emotional power that is timeless. This is evident in his remarkably intimate study of the Jokers, a Brooklyn street gang he befriended and hung out with for several months in 1959, while documenting their daily rituals and routines.
One image perfectly captures the fleeting nature of their teenage existence: Gang members in bathing suits climb over the boardwalk railing at Coney Island as one boy looks on, his profile already settling into the hardened look of someone older and tougher than his years. A seemingly carefree moment becomes secondary to deeper reflections of an uncertain future.
The bleak circumstances of these teenagers’ lives, most of them around the age of 16 or so, is always present within or just beyond the frame of the photos. But there is also an empathetic and engaging human quality that is a testament to Davidson’s relaxed familiarity with his unguarded subjects. This results in some unexpectedly tender and poignant freeze frames, such as a shirtless tattooed teen making out with his girlfriend in the back seat of a car with the highway receding behind them.
The subjects can also be playful, nonchalant, or completely unself-conscious when staring directly into Davidson’s lens or captured at close range, as in the portrait of a gang member proudly displaying his shoulder tattoo (very understated and sweet by today’s standards) or a grime-covered boy working on the exterior of a Cadillac Coup de Ville.
But even in the most casual circumstances, despair, apathy, defiance or boredom are often reflected in their faces or postures. Most of the gang members had brief, tragic lives, dying early from drugs or violence. One of the most indelible portraits shows a gang member rolling up his sleeve while his female companion strikes a teasing pose in the mirrored reflection of a cigarette machine. In an afterword to Davidson’s published collection, Bengie, the youngest surviving member of the gang, identifies the girl in the photo as Cathy. He remembers her as “beautiful like Brigitte Bardot,” but adds that “she was always sad, always fixing her hair.” He later reveals that she ended her own life by putting a shotgun in her mouth and pulling the trigger.
In striking contrast to the black-and-white selections from “The Brooklyn Gang” are numerous examples of Davidson’s color photography, which runs the gamut from classic Americana to candid celebrity portraiture to urban landscapes, such as the New York City subway system.
Among the most resonant of these images are those from his 1965 journey to Wales, which evoke both despair and beauty in their often startling juxtapositions. A little girl rounds the corner of a bleak row of buildings in a mining town, but her blonde hair and red sweater carry an unlikely vibrancy amid the oppressive gloom. In another scene, Davidson captures a group of weary, soot-covered miners returning home after spending their day underground, their blackened figures framed against the brown-gray landscape and the light blue sky. The composition combines color with black and white accents in a painterly way while exposing the harsh realities of the region.
Davidson’s inside-observer skills are also at their peak in his candid, behind-the-scenes photographs of the Supremes circa 1965. There is a fascinating dichotomy at work in one image of the three singers preparing for a show in their dressing room. On the left, we see Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson applying makeup and adjusting hair in a mirror, while Diana Ross stares directly at the camera from her reflection on the far right side of the frame. The empty space between the two mirrors with the bright crimson wall exposed suggests an emotional estrangement that seems prophetic in terms of what we now know about the group’s growing inner tensions and eventual breakup in 1967.
Providing another example of Davidson’s versatility are a few landscape portraits from his survey of the Pacific Coast Highway. They were commissioned for Travel & Leisure magazine in 1993, but the work also succeeds as a personal ode to the natural beauty of the coastline between Santa Monica, California, and Seattle, Washington. The image of a classic car perched on a hilltop overlooking a pristine stretch of beach is imbued with a sense of wanderlust that is almost palpable amid the subtle color scheme.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Davidson said of his work, “I’m just a humanist. I just photograph the human condition as I find it. It can be serious. It can also be ironic or humorous. I’m political, but not in an overt way. Of course, everything we do in life is political. Almost everything.”
These observations are given eloquent expression in the work on display through August 1 at Jackson Fine Art.
Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening, and other favorite topics for various digital publications.