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.