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The University Magazine

Legends of the lens

Bruce Davidson ’54: Worldviews

Bruce Davidson’s photos draw us into worlds we have not lived in and connect us with people who would otherwise have remained invisible.

University Magazine - Winter 2009 Image
Jimmy, Palisades, N.J., from Circus by Bruce Davidson, courtesy Magnum Photos

Look at Brooklyn Gang, a photo collection of a teenage gang called The Jokers growing up in the late 1950s. Revisit the Civil Rights Era through Time of Change: Civil Rights Photographs 1961- 1965, revealing that period’s crosscurrents of injustice, violence and defiance. See the dignity and despair on one block of East Harlem in the late 1960s in East 100th Street. Bear witness to the gritty subterranean world of Subway in vibrant color, or see the layers of life in Central Park. These visionary bodies of work have been deemed classic and continue to inspire.

Davidson’s lifelong passion for photography was ignited early. As a 10-year-old in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, he was waiting to get into a pickup game of basketball when a friend asked if he wanted to see pictures develop in the dark. In the dim ruby glow of a basement darkroom, he watched in amazement as images came to life on blank sheets of paper immersed in a tray of solution.

With savings from a paper route, he bought his first camera and developing equipment. His grandmother’s jelly closet became Bruce’s Photo Shop, and within a couple of years, he was hopping the El train into Chicago to explore neighborhoods through his camera.

“It was OK with my mother as long as I was home by dark,” he says.

In high school, he apprenticed to a skilled commercial photographer named Al Cox, who taught Davidson how to enlarge photographs, how to use a Rolleiflex with flash on newspaper assignments, and how to make dye-transfer color prints. His close-up of an owl won first prize in the animal division of the Kodak National High School Snapshot Contest.

At RIT, faculty legends like Minor White and Ralph Hattersley widened his eyes to photography’s aesthetic possibilities.

“Ralph Hattersley taught us how to view the work of photographers from Irving Penn to Robert Frank to Henri Cartier-Bresson,” Davidson recalls. From other faculty members, he gained a sharper grasp of the technical foundations: “There was Hollis Todd’s sensitometry class and Les Stroebel was a technical wizard in the studio demonstrating bounce flash, and William Schumacher, my organic chemistry teacher, opened the doors of scientific understanding.”

But Davidson says he learned as much from fellow students like Irving Pobboravsky ’62 (imaging science), now the dean of modern daguerreotypes, and Joan Fogerty, with whom he was enchanted. She showed him her copy of Henri Cartier- Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, “and I thought that if I could take pictures like this guy, she’ll fall in love with me.” The romance was not to be, but as Davidson took pictures of people in Rochester – street life, vagrant men at storefront missions – he gained a greater understanding of the meaning of Cartier-Bresson’s work.

University Magazine - Winter 2009 Image

From Central Park by Bruce Davidson, courtesy Magnum Photos

Davidson met Cartier-Bresson in the late 1950s, when serving as a soldier assigned to the photo lab at the Allied Powers headquarters in Europe near Paris. Davidson had spent weekends in Paris with his camera, where, through a French friend, he met and photographed Madame Fauchet, widow of Impressionist painter Leon Fauchet. This series served as a calling card to Cartier-Bresson, who looked at the contacts and prints and then brought Davidson into the international photo agency, Magnum Photos.

Over the next 50 years, Davidson built a body of work that has established him as a major figure in modern photography.

An astonishing feature of his work is the sheer variety of subjects, themes, and ways of seeing. He has photographed glamour, celebrity and privilege –The Supremes, Leonard Bernstein, Linus Pauling, Brad Pitt, Edward Steichen, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Marilyn Monroe, among others. He has done high-fashion shoots for Vogue. His work has been featured in Life, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and other publications. His commissioned photography is vivid, original, and timeless – see what he has done for Toyota or the fashion designer Valentino.

Yet the work that seems to have earned him the most critical acclaim – and that may be closest to his heart – is East 100th Street, whose photographs helped the citizens committee trying to improve their neighborhood tell their story.

University Magazine - Winter 2009 Image

For more on Bruce Davidson, visit www.magnumphotos.com/BruceDavidson or www.art-dept.com/artists/davidson/.

There is more work to come. In forthcoming collections tentatively titled The Nature of Paris, The Nature of LA and The Nature of Central Park, Davidson is illuminating the world of plant life and green spaces living within cities – a world we often don’t see because our gaze has settled on a building, a monument, or a passing bus.

What are the secrets of creating a body of work that matters? Passion, purpose and patience, he says.

“Stay with something that attracts you or repels you or excites your curiosity,” says Davidson, “and stay with it for a long, long time, until you really understand it and it understands you. If you want to photograph polar bears, don’t just take a few photos at a distance. Go live with polar bears for a year – but avoid being eaten!”

Jan Fitzpatrick