‘An outsider on the inside’: The career of Bruce Davidson

Story highlights

A new book looks at the work of acclaimed photographer Bruce Davidson

Davidson's subjects include 1950s New York, the American civil rights movement

CNN  — 

Bruce Davidson was waiting to get in a basketball game when a friend asked if he wanted to see some “darkroom magic.”

The darkroom was in a basement, and Davidson remembers seeing a red light and a tray filled with a liquid that looked like water. As he watched the development process, he saw an image appear on a blank piece of paper in the tray.

“I was awestruck,” Davidson said. He was 10 years old, and not long after that he picked up his first camera, a Falcon 127.

“My mother emptied out the jelly closet in our home so a darkroom could be built and the rest is history,” he said.

Photographer Bruce Davidson

Since picking up that first camera, Davidson has gone on to extensively document the human condition in the United States. He joined Magnum Photos in 1958 and developed an immersive, documentary style that defines his career.

His work during the 1950s and 1960s is far-reaching: an intimate look at the life of a circus performer, the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York, and the American civil rights movement are just a few of the subjects in the new book “Bruce Davidson: An Illustrated Biography.”

In 1959, Davidson spent time with a group of teenagers in New York known as the Jokers for an unprecedented look at youth culture in the United States. Davidson’s series “Brooklyn Gang” came about almost by chance.

“I read about (the Jokers) in the newspaper,” Davidson said. “They were in the news because of a rumble, or gang war, so I just went down to see what it was all about. I offered to photograph their bandages to show their lawyers. That was my way in.”

Davidson stayed with the group for months, and the resulting images offer a complex and timeless portrait of teenage life. In one photo a girl fixes her hair in the mirror of a cigarette machine. In another, boys smoke and drink under a boardwalk on Coney Island. Though Davidson was older than his subjects, he began to see some of himself in them.

“I took away something about their depression and anger – their vitality that led me to stay close to them for several months,” he said. “I was 26 and they were 15, but I could see my own repression in them and I began to feel a connection to their desperation. I began to feel their isolation and even my own.”

What makes Davidson’s photographs so compelling is that they stem from patience and an ability to empathize with his subjects.

“I stay a long time,” he said. “My eyes open to their lives. In my silence, they feel secure. My philosophy is to stay until it becomes a subject. I am an outsider on the inside.”

Davidson applied this philosophy to his coverage of the civil rights movement, capturing images of Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Riders and cotton pickers. One image, striking for its violence, shows a woman being sprayed with water by firefighters in Birmingham, Alabama.

“I could only dart in and out, capturing moments of rage,” Davidson said. “I was first introduced to the civil rights movement when I got on a bus during one of the Freedom Rides. I felt a need to capture what was going on with my camera in some way. I was witness to such violence and oppression.”

Photography allowed Davidson to experience the world around him in a profound way, and his photographs in turn bring marginalized groups to a broader audience.

“With photography, one can enter unknown worlds and inside lives,” he said. “Through this I was able to visually communicate what I experienced once I was inside.”

Bruce Davidson is an American photographer represented by Magnum Photos. “Bruce Davidson: An Illustrated Biography,” published by Prestel, is the second book in the Magnum Legacy series. A Davidson retrospective opens in Barcelona, Spain, on May 28 at the Fundacion MAPFRE. It encompasses 200 photographs of his life’s work and tours Europe for the next two years.