For most of his nearly seven-decade career, Bruce Davidson has photographed people on the edges of society. With directness and empathy, he places himself eye-to-eye with those who have been overlooked. For The Way Back, his exhibition at Howard Greenberg Gallery through September 16, Davidson took another look into his vast archive to select previously unpublished images from his best-known series.
As the exhibition title suggests, Davidson and photography go way back. He writes that at the age of ten, “Most boys my age had a dog. I had a camera.” From the beginning, he considered the camera not just a tool, but a companion. Together, they made Brooklyn Gang, 1959; Time of Change, 1961-65; East 100th Street, 1966-68; and Subway, 1977, all of which appear here, gorgeously printed and interspersed with a handful of Welsh coal miners, New York street scenes, and Mexican markets. He immerses himself in these worlds, building trust and connection with his subjects.
Davidson is attuned to the ways in which city people living on top of each other in cramped apartments and moving among the swirling masses carve out intimate spaces. Cozied up underneath the Coney Island boardwalk, members of a Brooklyn gang cast penetrating looks over long drags on cigarettes – the eternity and fleetingness of youth in a single image. On subway platforms and busy streets, Davidson crams bodies into the frame, heightening the sense of claustrophobia. Even within such chaos, he connects with his subjects, locking eyes through his lens. Those less familiar with his work would be surprised to learn that the images in this show are not included in his books, so seamlessly do they fit into his oeuvre. The photographs are classic Davidson – compassion bubbling beneath the grit. With a lifetime of images to choose from, the photographs on view reflect his most famous series, spanning just 20 years, 1957 to 1977.
In the same way that Brooklyn Gang was never about youth violence but about a class of aimless teenagers, and East 100th Street was not about one Harlem block’s blight but rather its community’s strength, this exhibition is not about Davidson’s greatest hits but about his sustained and consistent vision. The quotation running the length of the gallery wall reads: “So I have done what I wanted to do. I have seen everything, misery, celebrity, the beautiful people, the wicked ones, generosity and hatred. But I think I have gone beyond my vision…. In the heart of my own life, in the heart of other people’s lives. Perhaps that is the most important thing I have done.” These are the words of a man reflecting near the end of an incredible career, revisiting his most impactful bodies of work to make certain that he hasn’t left anything unsaid.