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Bruce Davidson
USA. New York City. 1980. Subway© Bruce Davidson/Magnum

How to get up close and personal with photography

Magnum luminary Bruce Davidson is renowned for the unflinching intimacy of his images of alienated communities – here he lifts the lid on his upfront approach

82-year-old veteran photographer Bruce Davidson doesn’t do detached observation. His approach has nearly always been to get up close and personal with his subjects. “Robert Capa said if you’re not getting good pictures it’s because you’re not getting close enough”, muses the Illinois-born luminary, who joined Magnum in 1958. “I always feel that I need to be taken into a world.” Renowned for his bodies of work that intimately capture estranged communities and gritty New York life, Davidson emerged in the early sixties at the frontline of a new wave of radical documentary photographers including Diane Arbus, Danny Lyon, and Lee Friedlander. His signature series, brought together in a new biography titled Bruce Davidson: An Illustrated Biography: Magnum Legacy authored by Vicki Goldberg, published by ©Prestel and available now, chronicled the struggle of alienated Americans and underground culture – from wayward youths in Brooklyn Gang (1959), to the turbulent protests against segregation in Time of Change: Civil Rights Photographs (1961–65), and inner-city ghetto life in East 100th Street (1970). Tapping into over 70 years of clicking the shutter, below we find out from Davidson how to capture honest images, and get close to your subjects – however, distanced from your life they may be.

“While everybody sort of takes a picture and leaves, I stay” – Bruce Davidson


“I enter worlds that I don’t know much about and eventually understand what they’re about, what’s happening in them. Let’s say East 100th Street, I was introduced to a white minister and he said he can’t give me permission to take pictures, ‘you’ll have to meet with the citizens committee and they will look into it’, so that’s what I did. They said ‘photographers come to our neighbourhood all the time and take pictures’ – what we would call ‘poverty pictures’ – ‘and nothing changes’. I said, ‘I work a little differently, I work with large format, four by five-inch camera, I hang out, I photograph, and I give prints to people as I photograph them.’ I used to bring members of the gang pictures that I took outside the neighbourhood, say a fashion photograph to give them a sense of another world outside of their world. Slowly people began to understand that I was helping them, not hurting them, and allowed me in.”


“I think what I see with younger photographers is they don’t stay around long enough. They photograph, let’s say, someone selling hotdogs on the street, (but) they should do more than just take one picture; they should come back, day after day, maybe even year after year to photograph the entire family that has its business (there). In other words, it is an accumulated effect. I’m not interested in the dramatic. (...) In terms of the Civil Rights (movement), Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the targets; it was a very racist community at that time. I would sort of stay around; while everybody sort of takes a picture and leaves, I stay.”


“I work in a series because I’m working very often a long time in one particular body of work. Even in the 1960s, my England photos were really a series of encounters and imagery and people. What was most important was the freedom that Queen magazine (who commissioned the series) gave me. I bought a Hillman Minx convertible and drove around, living mostly on bananas and fudge from London. So I was free, took very little direction at all. Mark Boxer let me be free, so I was just very happy jumping around in that car, going to Hastings, and I would just walk around with my little Leicas and take pictures of whatever affected me at the time.”


“I like to go the roots of my photography, I like to work with black and white film. I’m not drawn to digital, however, there are certain things that can only be photographed with digital because of its sensitivity to light. But I’m not there yet, emotionally. (…) I like to work in black and white because that’s what I’ve always done, except for certain bodies of work – Subway for instance – although I photographed some in black in white (in that series) and I liked them better – that’s not known very well. It’s like having twins – colour or black and white – it depends on the situation and the mood I happen to be in.”


“I like to be in the corner, I like to be ready and open for a photograph to happen, but I don’t like a story, I just like a mood. It’s kind of like charcoal needs other charcoal to catch on fire so it’s a chain reaction (...) I’m just encountering whatever I feel, what I understand to feel that’s there. I’m not telling anybody anything, I may be exploring something that needs to be seen but it's never a story.”


“In the Verrazano Bridge photographs, I just had to go up onto the anchorage and then walk along part of it about 40 feet high. Of course the steel workers and the ‘boomers’ they’re called, they saw that I wasn’t going to fall off, but I did get to the top of the bridge. I could never do it again, I just had to be crazy for a while.”


“With my staying around a long time, I began to sensitise myself to the plight of a given subject, and by staying around and observing and not judging, I find I grew a lot harder.”

Bruce Davidson: An Illustrated Biography: Magnum Legacy – published by ©Prestel – is available now