Despite the promise of more pithy provocations like “I have always been convinced that painting is an outmoded means of expression and that photography will dethrone it once the public’s visual education is complete” (from 1930), I’m putting aside Man Ray: Writings on Art (Getty) to concentrate on two books that describe other eventful, instructive, and more typically all-American careers in photography, both ongoing. Neil Leifer’s Relentless: The Stories Behind the Photographs (Texas), written with Diane K. Shah, and Bruce Davidson: An Illustrated Biography (Prestel) by Vicki Goldberg trace their subjects’ busy professional lives through the photographs they took. Both men were given cameras as kids and never put them down. Leifer got his first sports photo into print at 16; Davidson was 22 when LIFE published his locker-room pictures of the Yale football team. Both became successful editorial photographers, but the similarities end there, at least as far as their books’ narratives are concerned. Leifer worked almost exclusively for magazines, primarily Sports Illustrated (which published his iconic shot of Muhammad Ali standing and crowing over a knocked-out Sonny Liston in 1965) and Time, where his assignments took him beyond sports to a host of movie stars and politicians. His book, with chapters on Ali, Joe Namath, Mickey Mantle, and Arnold Palmer, is anecdotal, entertaining, and packed with details about the business of photography in the pre-digital age. Asides about carrying film back to New York on the red eye from LA in order to meet the SI deadline may not be quite as diverting as the caper involving O.J. Simpson’s nude selfies, but it grounds Relentless in Leifer’s competitive, workaday world and puts his focus on celebrity in sharp perspective.
Although Goldberg’s book on Davidson (the second volume of a Magnum Legacy series that began with Eve Arnold) reads like an extended magazine profile, her subject is more conflicted and reflective than Leifer, and his work cuts a lot deeper. Davidson, who says, “I was basically Cartier-Bresson’s baby, maybe Eugene Smith’s,” is the very model of the modern concerned photographer (Cornell Capa included him in the second of his two books on the approach). Whether it’s Southern civil rights activists, a Brooklyn gang, or one of the toughest blocks in East Harlem, he doesn’t just photograph a subject, he lives with it. “I start off as an outsider,” he tells Goldberg, “usually photographing other outsiders, then, at some point, I step over the line and become an insider.” The results are vivid and soulful; Goldberg suggests an affinity with New Journalism, which was making a similarly empathetic leap beyond traditional reportage in the same period. Davidson had a predictably ambivalent relationship with magazine work, and very little of it is reproduced here, but assignments at Vogue and Esquire sustained him between book projects. Biographical material (a failed first marriage, a period of depression) makes for some awkward passages; Goldberg is more comfortable plotting the trajectory of an utterly idiosyncratic career, and she makes plenty of room for Davidson’s unpretentious voice. Summing up, he compares himself to a pro baseball player: “Sometimes you strike out, sometimes you hit a home run, sometimes you have to be traded.” With his stats, he’s not going anywhere.
For engaged reportage in a very different vein, pick up Nick Waplington’s The Isaac Mizrahi Pictures: New York City 1989-93 (Damiani), a behind-the-scenes look at the designer at work that predates Douglas Keeve’s vivacious Mizrahi doc, Unzipped (1995). In a brief foreword, Waplington notes that he would often follow up days among strutting supermodels with nights at dance clubs like Sound Factory, so he combines shots from both worlds here. With no captions to distinguish one from the other, the images mix like techno cuts in a brilliant fashion mashup.