New York City. 1980. Subway. All photographs copyright Bruce Davidson/Magnum
While not strictly a New York photographer, Bruce Davidson has created some of the most iconic New York photographs of the 20th century. Born in 1933 near Chicago, Davidson’s subjects have including the Civil Rights Movement in the early ’60s, a Brooklyn gang, Spanish Harlem, circus performers, and a 5-year project on New York’s subway system in the gritty ‘80s. If you are afraid of photographing on New York’s subway system today, imaging spending five years in the height of the tough ’80s New York with a giant flash.
A few of Davidson’s main influences were Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and W. Eugene Smith. He had an obsessive relationship with photography, writing about his life in his early 20s in his Greenwich Village apartment, “I had a red light in the fridge so I could eat cold chicken and print pictures at the same time.”
Davidson had an intimate style, and he often embedded himself closely with his subjects to complete his projects. He spent five years photographing the civil rights movement in America, following a group of freedom riders in the south (in 1961) through dangerous situations. He stated, “I made a decision early on not to buy a telephoto lens, to never be more than a meter and a half from the protesters and the policemen I was photographing on the streets. I wanted to be almost in the picture.”
One of his most important works is East 100th Street, where he captured life within a single block of the inner-city ghetto in East Harlem in the late ’60s. Instead of photographing the entire neighborhood, Davidson told the story of one block. He familiarized himself with a smaller area, and used that to tell a much larger story, due to the intimacy with his subjects.
One of Davidson’s most famous projects was Brooklyn Gang in 1959. One day, He read an article about a series of street fights in Brooklyn, and left the next day to Prospect Park to meet a group of youths called the Jokers. Over the years, several of the members of the Jokers succumbed to drugs or drug involved violence. A woman named Kathy, staring at herself in a cigarette machine in one of his most famous photographs, shot herself with a shotgun.
While getting intimately close with his subjects was paramount to his success, Davidson did not think of himself as a documentary photographer, saying, “Documentary photography suggests you just stand back, that you’re not in the picture, you’re just recording. I am in the picture, believe me. I am in the picture but I am not the picture.”
In 1980, Davidson began an dedicated five year project photographing the New York Subway system. It is fascinating to compare the clean(ish) subway system of today with back then. The subway system looks so much different now. Is it possible to make it as interesting as he did? How would he do his project today?
It is easy to think that we cannot repeat the success of prolific photographers like Davidson. They seem so fearless, but when you read his own statements about this project, he does not sound much different than any of us would probably feel. He was just dedicated, self aware, and able to push through it. It is inspiring.
“As I went down the subway stairs, through the turnstile, and onto the darkened station platform, a sinking sense of fear gripped me. I grew alert, and looked around to see who might be standing by, waiting to attack. The subway was dangerous at any time of the day or night, and everyone who rode it knew this and was on guard at all times; a day didn’t go by without the newspapers reporting yet another hideous subway crime. Passengers on the platform looked at me, with my expensive camera around my neck, in a way that made me feel like a tourist—or a deranged person.”
“It was hard for me to approach even a little old lady. There’s a barrier between people riding the subway—eyes are averted, a wall is set up. To break through this painful tension I had to act quickly, on impulse, for if I hesitated, my subject might get off at the next station and be lost forever. I dealt with this in several ways. Often I would just approach the person: “Excuse me. I’m doing a book on the subway and would like to take a photograph of you. I’ll send you a print.” If they hesitated, I would pull out my portfolio and show them my subway work; if they said no, it was no forever. Sometimes, I’d take the picture, then apologize, explaining that the mood was so stunning I couldn’t break it, and hoped they didn’t mind. There were times I would take the picture without saying anything at all. But even with this last approach, my flash made my presence known. When it went off, everyone in the car knew that an event was taking place—the spotlight was on someone. It also announced to any potential thieves that there was a camera around. Well aware of that, I often changed cars or trains after taking pictures.”
Read more from Davidson on this project: Train of Though: On the ‘Subway’ Photographs.
Purchase Bruce Davidson: Subway.
View Bruce Davidson’s projects:
Times of Change: Civil Rights. 1961-65.
Search for Bruce Davidson books here.
New York Private Photo Tours and Street Photography Group Workshops: Join me on a street photography walking workshop around New York City.
What is Street Photography? – An Introductory, How-To Guide for Beginners: Learn about the basics of street photography in this easy to digest guide.
6 thoughts on “The History and Photography of Bruce Davidson, Subway Photographer Extraordinaire”
Hey James your photography are spot on the subway shots are priceless with the story. Thanks for your time to teach Iam learning to take some good photography and I understand being in that moment for that shot.I need to go out more with my camera. Thank!!
Glad you enjoyed the article Thomas! We all do!
Nice selection of photos. I have a copy of Davidson’s subway book but can’t find it…got lost in the mess. I don’t live in NY, but plan to visit 2 or 3 times a year to shoot. The amount of photo ops for the street photog in Manhattan is just sickening…
I’m doing a book on the subway. (Like the world really needs another one…but we got to shoot something.) I seldom talk to the people on the street or the subway. I’m kinda shy, so I use my candid skills. If light is poor I can use IR flash to stay undercover.
NYC is the yawning capitol of the world!
…but that is another book.
Ha! Yeah I don’t flash people in general. On the subway, that’s a very tough thing to do.
Thanks for this. I recently took a class on street photography which started with art history. I selected Bruce Davidson as the artist who spoke most to me. Wrote my piece on him. Love his work and love New York.
Happy to hear that Debi! His work is wonderful.