Bruce Davidson

By Ruth Schilling

Centre National de la Photogrophie, Palais de Tokyo.

(This retrospective exhibition of Bruce Davidson's photographs was not technically part of the Mois de la Photo, but it was a major pho­tography exhibition during that event.)
Davidson is a humanist. He doesn't claim social realism or doc­umentary goals for his photographs, but wishes them to reflect his compassion for his fellow man. He has been consistent in both his concerns and approach. More often than not, he chooses to work in the genre of the photo essay, as opposed to simply shooting at ran­dom on the street. His chores are topical and urban (Teenagers, E. 100 St. Subway). Chronologically. Davidson's technique becomes more re­fined and dominant with each series while the subject matter re­mains constant (in a sense). Grainy, casual 35mm portraits give way to more self- conscious and formalized prints, culminating in the large color prints of the New York subway.
Davidson began photographing the subway in black and white and then switched to color, which seems appropriate considering the graffiti-laden environment the sub­way has become. I wondered what any French person seeing the N.Y, subway for the first time in these photographs would think of it com­pared to their own rather business­like Metro. Coupled with the use of flash and the effects of flourescent lighting, the noise of the color is often deafening. The trains look more like rides at Coney Island than public transportation. Unlike Walker Evans' Many Are Called, which focused on individual facial expressions caught in a moment on an anonymous train, in Davidson's photographs the color alone some­times seems to be the reason for the photograph. People's clothes become mere foils to the graffiti surrounding them.
The installation reinforced the often circus-like atmosphere of the photographs. They were hung in a sort of labyrinth that dictated the distance you could stand from them. Notably, this arrangement gave one the feeling of being on a subway car. The prints are large and this scale combined with the shortened viewing distance height­ened the trapped, anxious feeling reflected in some of the photog­rapher's subjects.
Not all the photographs focused on the train interiors or even the underground part of the system. In fact there was a distinct lack of orientation to the images. While some images are blaring, others are quite romantic m an urban way. In one photograph two women stand waiting on an elevated platform. Backlit, the soft summer twilight streams across the platform reveal­ing slightly the women's figures beneath their sundresses. This ro­manticism with a hint of boyish voyeurism is in evidence throughout Davidsons work. It energizes some of his best photographs, while it is the downfall of others. For exam­ple, one of my favorite Davidson photographs is from the I959 series Teenagers. A young girl admires herself in the mirror on a cigarette machine while her equally self-in­terested boy friend primps nearby. There is a directness in the photograph that alludes to the photographer's presence; yet that allusion doesn’t interfere with the scene. Too often in other Davidson pho­tographs I am made aware of the photographer at work, using his lens, framing, and print quality to heighten the 'drama' of the photograph.
Davidson doesn’t have a cool, dispassionate eye. As a result, his photographs sometimes cross the thin line that separates humanist concerns from mere sentimentality-At his best, though, Davidson doesn’t allow his camera to reduce a situation to one dimension. His subway is both horrible and beautiful. There is celebration and condemnation in all the series, reflecting his involvement with his subtexts and his respect for the complexity of life.