15 Lessons Bruce Davidson Can Teach You About Street Photography
(All photographs in this article are copyrighted by Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos / Steidl)
Bruce Davidson is a photographer that I deeply look up to and admire. He first started taking pictures when he was around 10 years old, and has now shot for a span of over 60 years. He has covered many important political issues, such as the freedom riders – as well as local issues such as the impoverished state of East 100th Street in New York City, and the dilapidated subway. He is truly a “photographer’s photographer” – as he shoots, develops, and prints all of his photographs by himself and during his working career would “live like a monk”.
Davidson refuses to define himself or his photography. He doesn’t agree with the “documentary”, “journalism”, or “fine art” classification (even less with “street photographer”). However I feel that his photographs appeal to many street photographers- and there are many lessons of wisdom that he can teach all of us about street photography.
This article will cover a little bit of background history of Bruce Davidson as well as what us street photographers can learn from his photography and philosophy. Also note that this article is very in-depth and long. Brew yourself a strong cup of coffee and dive in!
Bruce Davidson’s Biography
Bruce Davidson was born in 1933 in Illinois, and has been a part of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency since 1958 after being invited to join by Henri Cartier-Bresson himself.
To track Davidson’s start in photography, at the age of 10 his single-mother built him a darkroom in their basement and was taught the technical aspects of photography by a local photographer.
After graduating high school, he attended the Rochester Institute of Technology and Yale University, where he continued his learning in photography.
After his military service, in 1957 Davidson worked briefly as a freelance photographer, and joined Magnum the following year (having met Henri Cartier-Bresson while stationed in Paris as a soldier).
During these golden years he photographed extensively, taking photos of two of his famous projects, “Brooklyn Gang” – a project on troubled teenage youth in the area and “The Dwarf” – a circus-dwarf named Jimmy Armstrong that he befriended which showed the various levels of emotional complexity that Jimmy faced as a performer.
From 1961 to 1965, Davidson produced one of his most famous bodies of work, “Time of Change” in which he followed the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Riders around the United States, in both the North and South. This project awarded him the first National Endowment for the Arts grant ever given to a photographer.
Davidson’s next project, “East 100th Street” is probably his most famous bodies of work, in which he photographed an infamously run-down block in East Harlem for two years. Using a 4×5 large-format view camera, he befriended many of the locals and constantly gave out prints from the project that he worked on. Through the project you get a very intimate look into the lives of people in East 100th Street – both the difficulties they faced as well as the joys.
To follow up East 100th street, he worked on “Subway” in the late 1970s, when the subway in New York City was a very sketchy and dangerous place. Instead of using black and white (his typical medium), he photographed the subway in color – which gave the photographs a sense of vibrancy and “sexiness” that he wanted to convey. A decade later he worked on a project on Central Park for 4 years, steering clear of the typical clichés and showing it as a unique and inseparable part of New York City.
Currently at the age of 79, Davidson isn’t settling down. He is currently working on a project in Los Angeles – documenting the juxtaposition between nature and the city.
Lessons Bruce Davidson can teach you about street photography
Once again to clarify, Davidson doesn’t like to categorize his type of photography, and would certainly disagree with calling himself a “street photographer”. However I feel out of all the photographers out there, he has had one of the strongest impacts on my photography in terms of his humanitarianism, interest in social issues, as well as his love and compassion for his subjects.
For this post I have done research from Bruce Davidson’s “Subway“, and his newest publication “Black+White” – a 5-volume set of his projects “Circus”, “Brooklyn Gang”, “Time of Change”, “East 100th Street”, and “Central Park”, published by Steidl. I have also scoured the Internet for video and text-based interviews to base this article off. If there are any errors in this article, please mention it in the comments below.
1. Become part of the community
Bruce Davidson shares the story of how he became part of the community in East 100th Street:
“I came to 100th Street with a large format camera on a tripod. I wanted depth and detail and I wanted to meet the people eye to eye. I wanted the photograph to happen without intruding. The children called me the “picture man.” They said take my picture. I took their picture. I took photographs of them, they took my photographs. Can I have another picture? I gave them another picture. Can you make a couple of more prints? I gave them a couple of more prints. They received their pictures and I received mine. I saw my pictures hanging all over the place.Sometimes when I photographed a family of a person again, I had to take down my own pictures.” (East 100th Street)
As street photographers, the connections that we build with our subjects is often very shallow or non-existent. After all, that is the working style of street photography. We see a subject or a scene we want to capture, we take the photograph, wave hello or thank them – and move on.
However the way that Davidson worked was totally different – he spent a lot of time in each area, getting to know the people and having them collaborate with him. When he first came to East 100th street, people were a bit suspicious of him. However over time they warmed up to him through him giving out prints, talking with the locals, and even having them take his photograph.
When I shot in Downtown LA, one of the places I shot a lot was the Fashion District. It first started off through a show I co-curated with The Think Tank Gallery in which we shot one-square block for a week straight. Each of the chosen photographers would then exhibit their 3 best shots in the show, in which the community were all invited to attend.
This gave me a wonderful opportunity to get to know the people of the community better. I would walk around the entire Fashion District, saying hello to the store vendors and to the people who frequented the area often. At first shooting in the area I felt a bit out-of-place and awkward, but over time I started to feel very comfortable as many of the locals started to recognize me and say hello.
I feel just because we are street photographers doesn’t mean that we should always be hidden and stealth. Sometimes interacting with the people you photograph both makes you and them feel much more natural.
Not only that, but collaborate with the neighborhoods you may shoot in. Sure shoot your candid street photography, but also take posed portraits of locals in the area- and hand them prints. It will make them much more appreciative of your company, and will also give you the opportunity to give them something.
2. How to approach your subjects
When Bruce Davidson was photographing the NYC subway, he admitted to being quite timid at times approaching strangers to photograph. He describes in this excerpt from “Subway” the different ways he approached his subjects:
“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 pictures 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 after taking pictures.”
Davidson also shares a similar concept in another interview:
“I carried this little album of my work. I have three choices. If I see someone in this beautiful mood, ill go up to them and ask them, I’d like to take a picture of that mood. If they say yes, I ask if they can get back into that mood. Not everyone can do that. Or, if the said no, then I took out the album and they saw the work. Or I took it, and ran like hell. I had those three choices in the subway.”
I feel as street photographers we should also use our judgment to try different ways to approach strangers when shooting in the streets. Whenever I’m shooting in the streets, I try to judge a situation or a scene, which dictates how I will take a photograph of somebody.
Similar to Davidson, if I see an interesting gesture or a moment that I don’t want to interrupt, I’ll quickly approach and take the photograph without permission. This is how I would say I photograph 95% of the time. Then after this I generally will talk with the person and see how they are, explain why I took the photograph (if they had a beautiful look or gesture), and thank them for the photograph.
One point I thought was a great idea that Davidson did was carry around an album of photographs he took in the Subway. I feel that us as street photographers can do the same thing – carry around an album of photographs we have taken on the streets in case somebody gets upsets or asks us what we are doing.
I generally carry around my iPad and show my photographs to anyone who questions why I take photographs or “what I’m going to do with the photographs”.
Recently I was at the airport and I saw this woman dressed in lime-green, and I was overwhelmed with the desire to take a photograph of her. Being at the airport and not wanting to draw unwanted attention to myself, I asked for permission to take her photograph because I told her that I loved her outfit. She first looked at me skeptically, and asked “what for?” I told her I loved taking photographs of people in great outfits, and took out my iPad and showed her other photographs I took in the past. She liked them, and agreed that I could take a photograph of her- and I proceeded to do so. I then gave her my contact information and email and told her to contact me if she wanted me to send a copy of her photograph to her. She smiled and thanked me and I went on to catch my flight (which I almost missed).
So try to judge a situation to see whether you want to take a photograph candidly or if you want to ask for permission. General guidelines that I follow is that if I am out in public and the person doesn’t look angry or is walking at a really aggressive pace, I take a photograph candidly without thinking much about it. The times I generally ask for permission to take a photograph is that if they look overly aggressive or angry, or if I might be in a private place that could cause unwanted attention to myself.
Of course we never know how someone is going to react, so I recommend experimenting with both approaches – and soon you will develop your own set of guidelines to follow your gut.
3. See the world from your subject’s perspective
When we shoot street photography, there are a lot of times that people object to us taking their photograph. There might be several reasons for this. It might include that they don’t want their photo to show up on the Internet, that they don’t like how they look that day, or just generally don’t like being photographed.
This is where the question of ethics comes to play. Everyone has their own set of personal guidelines and ethics when it comes to street photography. Generally what I tend to avoid taking photographs of (without permission) is photographs of homeless people or people who may appear to be drug addicts or alcoholics. However this is not to say that I have never taken a photograph of a homeless person or someone I perceived to be a drug addict. There are also many photographs I have taken of “normal people” who didn’t want me to take their photograph that I have taken anyways.
I would say when it comes to ethics & street photography, there is no ultimate “rule” of “what’s okay to photograph” and “what’s not okay to photograph”. All I can suggest is to follow your own heart and what feels right to you.
In Davidson’s experiences he also shares some stories of people he photographed who didn’t like it, as well as people he didn’t take photographs of (for different reasons).
People who don’t want their photograph can be for reasons totally beyond what we can imagine. When shooting in Downtown LA, I also generally shy away from taking photos of people selling illegal merchandise (fake designer bags & animals) as they may be concerned that I will reveal them to the cops.
“Not everyone wants his picture taken. I began to photograph a man collecting junk in a yard. He saves the metal and sells it. He wouldn’t let me photograph him. I found out why. He was receiving welfare and he thought that if I took a picture of him collecting junk to sell, he might have his welfare taken from him.” (East 100th Street)
Realize at times people don’t want to get their photograph taken when they don’t look their best. Much of it may also depend on their mood:
“An old man said to me one day, ‘Oh, I don’t want a picture like that. I want to get dressed up and I want to put a Bible in my hand. That’s how I want my picture taken. I’ll tell you when I want my picture taken, when I’m feeling good.’” (East 100th Street)
We may also betray people’s trust without really knowing it.
“Then there’s the man who runs the luncheonette. He let me take his picture once, but I made it too dark and he never let me take his picture again. I know you’re prejudiced, he said, because you made it too dark. You make all the people here look too dark. When you make pictures look light, then I’ll put your pictures on the walls. But I know he likes me. He lets me use the bathroom in his luncheonette. He doesn’t let anyone do that. (East 100th Street)
Therefore when you are taking photographs of people in public and they get upset or refuse, try to understand why they may feel that way. See things through their perspective, which will give you a better understanding of why you are taking photographs (and the impact and influence you are having on the people of a certain area).
4. Don’t hesitate when taking photographs
One of the most difficulties that street photographers face (myself included) is the sense of hesitation we have before taking a photograph. Like approaching someone of the opposite gender at a bar, the more we think about it – the less likely we are going to do it. We all have a degree of fear in ourselves when taking photos on the streets.
Davidson shares that the best way of breaking through this tension is acting on impulse:
“Despite my fantasies of being a hunter stalking a wild animal, I was still afraid. 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.
Don’t let yourself fall to “paralysis by analysis” when you are shooting street photography. As my friend Charlie Kirk says, “When in doubt, click“.
Turn off that censor in your mind that prevents you from taking a photograph. The worst thing that generally happens is that people get upset and ask you to delete the photograph. But by not taking the photograph, even worse, you might miss that photo opportunity forever.
5. When to work in black & white and when to work in color
When we are working on a certain project it may be difficult to choose whether we want to shoot it in black and white or in color. Of course that nowadays shooting digitally with RAW, we have the option to change between both. However I believe that certain projects are much more powerful (if you choose the right medium).
Davidson shares his experiences first shooting the Subway in black and white (as he shot mostly black and white for his personal work). He soon realized after shooting in the Subways, that color would be a much better medium for the project:
“At first I photographed in black and white. After a while, however, I began to see a dimension of meaning that demanded a color consciousness. Color photography was not new for me –most of my commissioned work and all of my films had been done in color. But color in the subway was different. I found that the strobe light reflecting off the steel surfaces of the defaced subway cars created a new understanding of color. I had seen photographs of deep-sea fish thousands of fathoms below the ocean surface, glowing in total darkness once light had been applied. People in the subway, their flesh juxtaposed against the graffiti, the penetrating effect of the strobe light itself and even the hollow darkness of the tunnels, inspired an aesthetic that goes unnoticed by passengers who are trapped underground, hiding behind masks, and closed off from each other.
What I used to do when shooting street photography is shooting everything in RAW, and then deciding afterwards whether I preferred black and white or color for a certain shot. However since I have been shooting film, I can no longer do that- when shooting a project I have to stick with either black & white or color.
I think that making a decision between shooting black & white versus color should be less about the aesthetics of “what looks better” – and more about which medium adds more meaning to the photographs.
In Davidson’s example, he created a new meaning shooting in color – describing adding a “new dimension of meaning that demanded a color consciousness”. He likened the mood & atmosphere he wanted to create was similar to that of deep-sea fish, which are beautiful and glow vibrantly in color.
So when you are working on your own personal projects or shooting in the street, try to look beyond the obvious reasons of shooting in black and white or color. For example, shadows tend to look better in black and white, and if someone is wearing a bright colored shirt it looks better in color.
Rather, think about how black and white adds to the sense of drama and mood to the photograph (darkness, grimness, despair). And how color can add hope, vitality, and a sense of brightness and meaning to a photograph.
Of course these are just very basic examples, but consider all of this when you decide which medium to shoot in.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for permission
Street photographs are generally taken in public and without permission. If we call ourselves “street photographers” – we can often fall into the gap of not wanting to take any photos with permission (as it may cause us no longer to be a ‘street photographer’).
My suggestion is to disregard that notion. Sure street photographs are taken without permission, but it shouldn’t prevent us from asking for permission when taking photographs. As much as anybody out there, I don’t like adding labels to myself in terms of what type of photography I shoot. I tend to call myself a “street photographer” as it is the easiest way to classify myself (I wouldn’t call myself a landscape photographer for example).
If you come upon a great scene but you may be a little wary or concerned, don’t be shy. Ask for permission. Davidson shares a memorable story from one of his most powerful images in “Subway”:
“…I was looking at the map when the doors opened and in came a fierce youth with a deeply gouged scar running across his face. He sat down across the aisle from me, gave me a hard look, and said in a low, penetrating voice, “Take my picture, and I’m going to break your camera.” I quickly said, “I don’t take pictures without people’s permission, and I always send them prints.” I reached into my jacket pocket for my portfolio, walked over to him, and slowly leafed through the sample photographs while sitting on the edge of my seat. After looking, he paused for a moment, then turned to me and said, “Okay, take my picture.” I went back to my seat and began to photograph, taking a few frames.”
If Davidson took a photograph of the youth with the deeply gouged scar running across his face with his flash without permission, who knows what he would have done to Davidson. However after Davidson chatted with him a bit and showed him some of his previous work, he was able to build some rapport with the youth – who then said it was okay to take his photograph.
Last year in Downtown LA I saw a man walking in the streets at night with “LOS ANGELES” tattooed over his neck – along with tattoos on his face. My gut instinct was not to flash him directly in the face (as I was scared if he would kick my ass) but rather I approached him and said that his tattoos looked cool and I asked if I could take a photograph. In a kind voice he said “sure” and I snapped two photographs – one of which have ended up being one of my favorite photographs.
Davidson shares another story of a photograph of a woman he took in Central Park with her two dogs. Rather than taking the photograph outright he eased his way into the situation and built her trust:
“There’s a picture in my central park of a woman in a full-length mink coat with 2 little white dogs sitting on a park bench in the winter in Central Park. Now, the way i approached he was, ‘Those are really sweet dogs, what kind of dogs are they?” she said, they are my boo-boos. I said oh I would love to take a photo of your dogs. Can I take a photo of your dogs? Sure. Can I take a picture of you with your dogs? Sure. If I went up to her straight away asking if i could take a photo of her with her dogs, she would be scared. There would be no intercourse.” The best way is to approach people humanly. So they don’t feel you’re sneaking or anything. Or some sort of a bad person.” (Central Park)
This is another good way to approach your subjects if you want to take a photograph of them. Mention something interesting or unique about them (either their hair, nails, outfit, pets, etc.). This helps them understand why you want to take their photograph and also what you find interesting and unique about them.
A situation similar to that, I was in the Fashion District in Downtown LA and I saw this woman with these incredible fingernails. I first took a photograph of her hands without her permission and she freaked out a bit. I then explained that I loved her fingernails and asked if it was okay if I took another photo of her fingernails. Understanding what I was doing, she then calmed down, said sure, and then spread them wide for me – and I was able to make another one of my favorite images of all time.
7. Don’t always have a destination in mind
One of the things I love most about street photography is how we can wander the streets – like a flaneuer- with no destination in mind. Although I do generally like to go out and work on projects, I still generally let my instincts lead me uncharted paths. I don’t always have a destination in terms of where I want to go specifically when photographing.
Davidson shares from his “Subway” project in which he would wander around the subways without a particular destination in mind:
“I began to explore the different subway lines, taking them to the end then back again. Most of the time I didn’t set a destination but chose to be carried wherever the subway would take me, occasionally referring to the map and making mental note of places I wanted to return to.”
Let the streets take you down places you would generally not go down. Go down those odd roads, hidden alleys, and into little stores that you might find curious and interesting. Of course use your common sense and don’t do this during shady areas of your city late at night alone.
8. Don’t let yourself become pigeonholed into definitions
One of the things that Davidson despises is when curators, the public, or historians try to classify him into a “type of photographer”:
“Oh people you’re a documentary photographer. I don’t even know what that means. Oh people say you are a photojournalist. I’m rarely published in journals. Oh then yore a fine art photographer. Then I say I’m not. I aspire to be a fine photographer.”
In another interview he tells a story of a student who also defined herself:
“Once I asked a student what kind of photography she did, and she said, “I’m a fine art photographer”, and I said “That’s really interesting, because I see myself as just a fine photographer!””
I think that Davidson says a great point here (with great humor). Instead of trying to define ourselves into what type of photographers we are, let’s all try to just be good photographers.
In addition, Davidson isn’t interested in defining himself in terms of photography, and rather calls himself a humanist:
“I’m just a humanist. I just photograph the human condition as I find it. It can be serious. It can also be ironic or humorous. I’m political, but not in an overt way. Of course, everything we do in life is political. Almost everything.”
Rather than defining what type of photography he does, he explains why he photos. He sees himself as a humanist by photographing “the human condition” as he finds it – rather than just to make interesting images.
When it comes to his way of working, Davidson shares that the relationship and contact that he has with his subjects are very important:
“If I am looking for a story at all, it is in my relationship to the subject – the story that tells me, rather than that I tell.”“Contact sheets are interesting. I guess that’s what my photographs are about. Contact.”
Rather than aiming to just going out and taking interesting photographs, think about why you are trying to create those images and your relationship with your subjects.
Davidson also shares the deep sense of privilege he had getting to know more about the lives of others, and how it was more important than just photographs:
“I was permitted to go into a life that I didn’t know, and experience it with my camera. If the photographs serve, I have come away with much more than photographs.”
Think about what kind of impact you want to have to your viewers on a deeper, emotional, and even political level. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you trying to create images that make people laugh, cry, feel sorry for others, or give people hope?
- What is your relationship with your subjects? Do you prefer to make close contact with them, or prefer to stay distant?
These are two questions that I don’t have the answers to, but only you can answer.
9. Spend more time working on long-term projects
Almost all of Davidson’s projects were over the period of several months or several years.
For example, he photographed for his “Circus” project for 4 months when traveling with them in 1958. For his “Brooklyn Gang” project, he photographed the group for an entire summer in 1959. After that, he photographed the Civil Rights Movement in the South for 4 years for his “Times of Change” book. For his “East 100th street” project, he photographed for 2 years. His “Subway” project took him an entire year riding the trains in NYC. His “Central Park” book took him four years.
In an interview he stresses the importance of spending more time working on projects:
“I find that young people tend to stop too soon. They mimic something they’ve seen, butthey don’t stay long enough. If you’re going to photograph anything, you have to spend a long time with it so your subconscious has a chance to bubble to the surface.”
But how do you figure out a project that is worth photographing or something you may be interested in? Davidson gives some advice in a Q&A session at the Strand bookstore:
“I think that students stop too soon. If I were a student right now and i had a teacher like me I’d say, ‘You have to carry your camera everyday and take a picture everyday. And by the end of the week you should have 36 pictures exposed. And then suddenly you’ll latch onto someone, maybe a street vendor- oh he or she is very interesting I might have to be with him or her. So things open up visually”.
Understandably, it is difficult to stay motivated while working on a long-term project. Once again, he also gives his advice at the Q&A session at the Strand bookstore by saying:
“What carries me on is the next thing. I’m working in Los Angeles and imp very interested in plant and animal life overlooking the city. It is very difficult to photograph that, but I’m doing that. It’s expensive, they don’t have a subway yet in Los Angeles. So that challenge and that truth comes out of doing it everyday. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m doing – in Los Angeles I’m not sure what’s its all about- but its very interesting to me.”
Davidson, close to the age of 80, has an incredible body of work that he has already accomplished. However rather than being satisfied with what he has already accomplished, he is always looking for “the next thing” to keep him energized and inspired.
He also stresses the importance of the challenge of a project- a project that is too easy simply wouldn’t interest him.
Davidson also shares his difficulties & struggles when working on a long-term project, especially in his “Subway” project:
“There were times when the subway was depressing beyond belief, times when someone in the car carried the odor of clothing saturated with dried urine and an incrustation of filth. Everyone looked around, unsure where the odor was coming from, until a shabby-looking man would get up and slowly leave the train.”
Although Davidson faced these difficulties working on his “Subway” project, he still stuck with it. And the more he started shooting the project, he became totally immersed in it which continued to give him the passion to march forward:
“I became addicted to the subway. When I heard the rumble of the express train running several floors below our apartment, and felt the walls shake, my sense heightened, like a werewolf responding to the full moon. My life began to revolve around the subway. I volunteered to guide our younger child’s class to museum by subway, but found such a complicated route that the teachers felt lost, and the children bewildered. Eventually the teachers made us all leave the subway and walk the remaining few blocks.”
Another thing that Davidson did to better represent his “Subway” series was to photograph at different times during the day, to capture different scenes and characters:
“I began to go out late at night and in the early-morning hours. There are stations that are deeper underground and warmer in winter, where I have seen people asleep on benches, wrapped in blankets, in the hours past midnight. The subway becomes an empty no man’s land for the homeless, a few late-night riders, and the roaming animals of prey who inhibit the subway until the first morning workers begin to fill the platforms and trains around 5:00am”.
So when you are deciding what project you would like to work on, choose an idea that you are passionate about and something that is challenging. For more ideas on how to work on a street photography project, check out this post on How to Create Your Own Street Photography Project. I also have advice in terms of what I have learned through Sociology on how to create your own street photography project here.
10. Capture moods in your photographs
To create a memorable street photograph is a combination of content & form. We want strong content (capturing interesting people, scenes, situations) and strong form (composition, framing, backgrounds). Although both are important, Davidson says that his photographs revolve more around the content by capturing moods:
“From the start, my photographs were about capturing a mood. I didn’t do picture stories; it was more about taking a picture that caught a mood, then building a series that sustained that mood.”
He expands on this idea in another interview:
“I don’t think overtly I was political. I didn’t think of my photography as propaganda. I thought of it as imagery, and capturing a mood. Or the atmosphere, or the climate around a given situation, which somehow I was drawn to…it was all about passion and how I was attracted to photography. I loved to take pictures.”
In an interview at the strand bookstore, he is given a question about cameras (especially the proliferation of the iPhone as a camera). Davidson responds:
“I don’t care about iPhones. I’m interested in quality, vision; I’m interested in challenges. I’m interested in humanity. The more iPhones, the better as I’m concerned.”
It is very important to create images with good composition, framing, and technical settings. However don’t let an obsession with sharpness, bokeh, or “color rendition” of your camera overshadow what is more important – capturing the mood, emotion, and soul of a person or a scene. Who cares if your photograph is technically perfect but has no soul?
11. Be grateful for what you have
When photographing “East 100th Street”, Davidson learned to appreciate what he had in his own life:
“I’m not trying to glorify the ghetto. In many ways, it’s a horrible place, full of scars and pain. It taught me how much I ‘d taken for granted. I’m not wealthy by any means, but by contrast I am. I have hot water. I don’t have ten children to support. My life, my work is full of possibilities. I can in some ways affect my destiny.”
Davidson also shares a life-changing experience when working commercially and when he started to shoot the Civil Rights Movement:
“I supported myself with a little bit of commercial work. I started to do fashion, but didn’t have any feeling with fashion – and the models were far too tall for me. After a while I gave that up, because I went down on a freedom ride. So I went from fashion to photographing the civil rights freedom. I couldn’t do fashion after that. I couldn’t come to grips I was doing poverty in the south, and there was a model under a waterfall in a costume.”
One of the plagues society (especially in photography) is that we aren’t grateful for what we have. Rather than being grateful for our standard of life, we always aspire to get to the next level – to get a fancier house, car, or higher-paying job. We don’t appreciate the material things we have, and always want more.
I remember when I first started photography I had a Canon Rebel XT (350d). It was a great camera, but I soon got suckered into thinking I “needed” a full-frame camera through online gear forums. Of course I splurged on a Canon 5D and thought I would be happy for the rest of my life. Then came along the need to buy Canon “L” zoom lenses. Then came along the need to get Canon “L” prime lenses. Then came along the need to get a Leica M9. Then came along the need to get more lenses. Then came along the need to get a Leica MP. Now when I think the madness is over, I’m thinking more about medium-format film cameras. Trust me, the madness never ends.
We should all appreciate what we have, especially the loved ones we have in our lives and the nice shiny cameras and lenses that we already own. After all, many of the people in the streets we take photos of (with our expensive cameras) have far less than what we are blessed with.
12. On editing, printing, & putting together books
Although Davidson exhibits widely, he feels a need to put together his images in books. Here is some insight into his editing & book-making process.
“I felt that I had to put together a decisive collection of this journey because I started when I was 10 years old and photography — I mean classical photography, analog photography — is really within my DNA. It’s in my bones.I began by editing all my contact sheets and books. I edited for two or three days and then printed for two or three days. I can’t edit and print in the same day. That took a couple of years, because I made all the prints.I methodically edited and printed, and that was an experience in itself. For instance, the circus dwarf photographs are somewhat well known. ["Circus," 2007.] But what isn’t well known is that I also photographed the circus itself, which I never printed. So there are a lot of photographs in this collection that no one has seen before.I have a book in color of the subway in 1979 and 1980. ["Subway," 1986 and 2003.] But I started in black and white, so there’s a whole passage in this new book with subway photographs that are equally good.”
He also talks about the importance of the collaboration he has with his wife in the editing process.
“The editing process is a very important process. I usually work with Emily, my dear wife of 30 years. I look at this photo to be a bit trite. Sometimes you take out one picture that locks everything else.”
Davidson also shares his general workflow when shooting and printing:
“What if trying to do, what I would like to do is to keep my life in balance. I walk the streets with my handheld camera, interact with people, discover, question, know, understand- and then I come back into my darkroom and make impressions of what i experienced during the day.”
Davidson is also very disciplined when it comes to his printing:
“I have a ritual. I wake up at 4:30am, i have something sweet, cheesecake or something like that, then I go into the darkroom turn on the opera (Maria callas is my favorite because her voice is stronger than the water running). Then I make prints until 2 in the afternoon, and then I’ve had it. Then the prints are in the dryer.”
To recap, Davidson tends to separate his shooting, editing, and printing rituals. We can apply the same to our own photography, by giving time in-between each phase and keeping them separate.
For example rather than editing (choosing our best images) and post-processing them the same day (the digital equivalent of printing) we should perhaps spend an entire day choosing our best images, and another day post-processing them.
13. Don’t be sneaky
At a Strand Q&A talk, one person in the audience asked Bruce Davidson his opinion on street photography and if he thought it was easier (or more difficult) to photograph nowadays. Davidson responds:
“I think people today are almost easier to approach, they know what a photograph is like. They want to be seen. That’s another thing. I don’t know, I have always felt that street photography was really – sneaking, stealing a soul.”
Davidson makes the point that most street photography is “sneaky” and “stealing a soul”. Rather, Davidson makes another suggestion on how to be discrete yet not sneaky:
“I want to be discrete- so what I would do is go to a flower shop and take pictures of the owner of the flower shop – then I’d ask do you know anyone else in the street who would be interesting to photograph? Oh yeah we just delivered flowers to a 100-year old woman. So one thing leads to another – so you’re kind of like a reporter. So its like an anchor.”
Davidson also shares why he decided to use a very obvious 4×5 large-format view camera when shooting his “East 100th Street” project, in order to avoid being the “unobserved observer”:
“Each day I would appear on the block with my 4×5 view camera and a bag containing film holders, accessories, and a powerful strobe. The presence of a large format camera on a tripod, with its bellows and back focusing cloth, gave sense of dignity to the act of taking pictures. I didn’t want to be the unobserved observer. I wanted to be with my subjects face to face and for them to collaborate in making the picture. I wanted the images to have a depth, tonality, and level of detail that could convey the mood of lives poised in a moment of time. During the two years I photographed East 100th Street, NASA was sending probes into pouter space, to the moon and to Mars. Instead, I wanted to see into the inner space of the city and to focus sharply on people here on earth”.
Of course as a photographer you can make a mistake when talking to your subjects on why you are taking photographs. An experience that Davidson had when shooting East 100th Street that stuck with him for a very long time:
“On one of the first days he worked on East 100th Street, Bruce got the inevitable photographer’s question, ‘What are you doing here?” from a woman on the block.Bruce told the woman, “I am taking pictures of the ghetto…” (Followed by an awkward silence).“Well, what you call a ghetto, I call my home.” – via Bruce Davidson at MILK gallery talk (Adam Marelli Photo)
My personal opinion is that I don’t like being sneaky when shooting street photography either. I make it very obvious when I am taking a photo of someone, as I use a 35mm lens and stand about 1-2 meters away from someone. I also generally smile and say “thank you” (although not always).
If you want to be more discrete (without being sneaky) Davidson suggests to take photos of a person that you might have some rapport with, and then use them as an anchor to ask for recommendations for other people to photograph. Although I have never tried this method, I think it is a great idea that I encourage everyone else to try as well.
14. When in a foreign place, get help from locals
When Davidson was working on his East 100th Street project, he had the assistance from many of the locals, especially one boy who acted as his assistant:
“There was a boy who helped me a lot. He carried my camera bag around. He knew who might want to attack me and steal my camera. He knew many of the people who let me into their homes to photograph them. I relied on him. He made me feel safe.”
Consider that when Davidson was working on his East 100th Street project, it was a very dangerous place to be (especially as an outsider by yourself). However by befriending the boy- he helped Davidson better navigate the area and bring him a lot of safety (and photo opportunities).
When you travel to foreign places (doesn’t necessarily have to be out of your city), it is always good to figure out some of the important local customs and to even go out shooting with someone from the local area.
For example when I was shooting in Tokyo, I was very fortunate to go out to shoot with Charlie Kirk and Bellamy Hunt, two of my good friends. In certain areas like Kabuki Cho, they warned me of taking photos of the Yakuza without permission – as well as prostitutes in the area. Had I not known this, I might have faced trouble.
There was also incidents when I was in Tokyo, I upset and aggravated people for taking their photo. I was also lucky to have Charlie and Bellamy translate for me and speak in Japanese to calm them down. Another instance another local, Takeshi, helped me calm down someone I took a photograph of who didn’t know how to speak English.
15. Give back to the community
One of the touching things that Davidson did was to give back to the community when he would photograph. He shares a story when he was working on his “East 100th Street” project:
“Quite a few kids on the block are interested in photography. I lent a boy who had been helping me a camera and my developing tank. I gave him some film and I’m teaching him things. The kids and the people who take photographs don’t photograph the slums. They photograph their friends. You know, this boy kissing that girl.. All sorts of things all sorts of possibilities, without sentimality. They photograph the life they know, not its horrors.”
Davidson also shares how he tries to give his subjects prints whenever possible in order to bond with them and get closer to them. He shares his experiences when shooting “The Brooklyn Gang”:
“It’s pretty much always my practice to offer pictures. Even in the Brooklyn gang I would give them pictures. It was a way of seeing them, and a way of them seeing me. So I was able to be invisible almost to them- because they were secure with them being around me. They were very depressed, angry, and poor- and nothing for them in that community. I wasn’t there to judge them, it was about these kids – any kids- unattended to”.
One of the most rewarding things I have done in my photography career so far was to teaching photography to Phoenix High, a continuation school for youth from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Many of these students were put into school for different reasons: drug problems, gang problems, truancy problems, grades, etc.
These continuation students face a constant sense of stigma from the community as being “problem kids”. When I was doing research at the school for an ethnography honors thesis at UCLA, I got to know the students and the teachers very well. They suggested the idea of me teaching a class there on photography, and after graduating UCLA and working full time – I would go there every Friday for 2 hours and teach them the fundamentals of photography and go out and shoot with them. With the help from many people (from this community) I was able to fundraise cameras to support the photography program.
Although I am no longer able to continue the program (as I am always traveling and teaching workshops), I still keep in contact with a handful of the students who have used photography as a medium to find inspiration in their lives to channel their passions. You can see portraits I have shot of them and their stories here.
Consider starting some sort of photography project in your area. Reach out to a local school or a community center and offer your photographic services. If you don’t have time on the weekends to help out, consider making a donation to Kids with cameras – a non-profit that helps children of sex workers in Calcutta learn photography and get a quality education (http://www.kids-with-cameras.org/home/).
Bruce Davidson is a photographer who refuses to let himself be defined by others. Rather, he follows his passions and his gut to create meaningful bodies of work. When he chooses a project, he sticks with it and pursues it for several months, and often several years. He is a man that cares deeply for his subjects, and cares more about his relationships with them than the photos themselves.
Although Davidson wouldn’t consider himself a street photographer, us as street photographers can learn very much from Davidson’s experiences and wisdom from close to 70 years of photographing. Follow your heart, treat your subjects like humans, and try to capture emotion & humanity in your images. And don’t forget to give back.
Interesting stories from Bruce Davidson’s “Subway” book
Below are some fascinating excerpts from Davidson’s “Subway” book that I wanted to share:
1. On escaping a potential mugging
“I went on riding in empty cars at three in the morning. Once, the doors slammed open at a station and a middle-aged woman came in and began to undress. Out of a paper shopping bag she took some soiled articles of underclothing, a hotel towel, a pair of worn shoes, and a wine bottle, and carefully placed them all in the middle of the train floor. Onto them she poured cornflakes, then crushed ripe strawberries between her fingers and dripped that onto the breakfast cereal, making a sickening mess. I asked, “Are you making a subway collage?” She stared hard at me, lit up a cigarette, and sat down. I asked if I could take photographs for a book I was doing on the subway. She stood up, stamped out her cigarette, and then lifted up he dress. My flash went off a few times. The doors between the cars opened, and three youths with their eyes on my camera charged into the car, but halted when they spotted the mess on the floor. “Hey man, look at the shit on the floor. Let’s get outta here!” They turned and went out into another car. I realized the pile of disgusting refuse on the floor was a protective bonfire to keep the wild animals away. It had probably saved me from a mugging.”
2. On getting mugged in the subway
“I noticed two seventeen-year-old boys in the very last car smoking pot. I entered the car to see them more clearly, but decided not to make contact with them. They looked withdrawn and dejected, slumped in their seats. I stood for a few moments watching the view of the Manhattan skyline diminishing in the hazy distance, and then sat down a few seats across the aisle. The train slowed down and stopped at the Chauncey Street station, the doors opened at the youth quickly turned from the girl and rushed at me with the blade of a knife protruding from between his thumb and forefinger. He stood astride me, the blade next to my jugular. I heard his deep, guttural voice “Gimmie that camera.” His face was thin and dark, his eyes wide and desperate. I thought about the razor blade at my throat, and my words were, “Take the camera.” His partner behind me released the door, and they were out of the car with the camera, running down the platform stairs. As the train pulled away from the station, I stood at the door in shock. Then it occurred to me that I might be cut and bleeding. I felt my body, but there was no blood. I realize that they hadn’t gotten my camera bag, and that I had another camera and a couple of lenses left. I ran to the middle of the train to find the conductor who put out the alarm.”
3. On working with an undercover cop and busting a thief
“In the spring of 1985, New York magazine asked me to photograph a new police-decoy unit working in the subway. Using disguises, the decoy operates in small teams to foil muggers who prey on passengers. We would set up together in the subway car with a decoy dressed as a businessman wearing gold chains and an expensive-looking watch. Two backup members of the team would sit a few seats away, and I woud place myself in the corner with my camera around y neck, looking like a lost tourist. Hours went by riding the train from one end of the line to the other without incident. At 72nd street, I noticed a youth enter the train carrying a walking stick with a heavy brass head. He stood near the sleeping decoy, his eyes fixed on the gold chains. The next stop was 42nd street, 3 minutes away on the express. As the train pulled into the station the mugger struck ripping the chain from the decoy and running around me mumbling something about my camera. I looked up and my flash went off as I saw the muzzle of a .38 pointed at the head of the mugger by one of the decoy team members. The mugger was arrested and later it was reported he had a long history of assaults and robberies.”
4. On taking the cover image of Subway
“That kid was probably 18-19 years old, came right of off the beach and he had so much sun on his body that it almost radiated. So I just asked him “do you mind? You really have a good tan!”. So I asked him, and I think I sent him a print, but of an image further back so he could see more of his figure.Funny thing that happened: I had a show at the Museum of the City of New York, there were C-prints, and a guy came up to me and said, “I’m the cover!”. And this guy was huge, and when I asked what he did he told me he was a bodybuilder. And he said “if you want, come by the gym and I’ll work with you!”.
5. On why he decided to pursue “Subway” as his project
“The subway interior was defaced with a secret handwriting that covered the walls, windows, and maps. I began to imagine that these signatures surrounding the passengers were ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Every now and then when I was looking at one of these cryptic messages, someone would come and sit in front of it, and I would feel as if the message had been decoded. I started to draw a connection between the Broadway Island, the neighborhood cafeteria and the pious scribe on the Lower East Side. The connection was the subway.”
6. How Davidson prepared himself for the “Subway” project:
“To prepare for myself for the subway, I started a crash diet, a military fitness exercise program, an early every morning I jogged in the park. I knew I would need to train like an athlete to be physically able to carry my heavy camera equipment around in the subway for hours every day. Also, I thought that if anything was going to happen to me down there I wanted to be in good shape, or at least to believe that I was.”Each morning I carefully packed my cameras, lenses, strobe light, filters, and accessories in a small, canvas camera bag. In my green safari jacket with its large pockets, I placed my police and subway passes, and a few rolls of film, a subway map, a notebook, and a small, white, gold-trimmed wedding album containing pictures of people I’d already photographed in the subway. In my pants pocket I carried quarters for the people in he subway asking for money, change for the phone and several tokens.I also carried a key case with additional identification and a few dollars tucked inside, a whistle, and a small Swiss Army knife that gave me a little added confidence. I had a clean handkerchief and a few Band-Aids in case I found myself bleeding. I tightened my belt with the heavy strobe power pack on it, slipped on my jacket, put on my cap slung my camera over my shoulder, made one last trip to the bathroom, and was ready for a day in the subway.”
Books by Bruce Davidson
Support Bruce Davidson and myself by purchasing one of Davidson’s books below (if you purchase a book through one of these links on Amazon I make a small commission). All of these collections are published by Steidl, inarguably the best publisher in the world. The books have some of the finest printing- with nice thick paper and vibrant colors and soulful black & whites. The snapshots in this post don’t do the photos any real justice, purchase a copy below!
“Subway” – by Bruce Davidson
“Black + White”, by Bruce Davidson
Videos by Bruce Davidson
Below are some videos I highly recommend watching:
Bruce Davidson, “Subway” talk at the Strand Bookstore (2011)
A great in-depth watch at around 1 hour long – Davidson talks about his most famous shots in his “Subway” book. Nice Q&A at the end too.
Bruce Davidson, “Everybody Street” (2011):
A nice contemporary interview with Cheryl Dunn – shows his darkroom and working style.
Bruce Davidson: Making Contact (2000)
An earlier film – with a younger Davidson talking about his photography.
Bruce Davidson: A Lifetime with Leica (Leica Blog)
A nice feature with Leica – featuring some of Davidson’s sweet Leica’s.
Bruce Davidson’s “East 100th Street” book flip-through
A lovely flip-through Davidson’s “East 100th street” book.