Bruce Davidson, Subject: Contact @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 28 black and white photographs and 8 contact sheets, generally framed in black and matted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. The works are arranged by project, as follows:

Circus

  • 5 gelatin silver prints, 1958, 1958/1965, 1958/later, sized roughly 7×5, 11×14, 6×10, 7×10, 6×9 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print contact sheet, 1958/later, sized 24×20 inches, in an edition of 4

Brooklyn Gang

  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 1959, 1959/1965, 1959/no later than 1966, sized roughly 9×13, 6×10, 8×10, 8×11, 14×9, 5×8 inches
  • 2 gelatin silver print contact sheets, 1959/later, each sized 24×20 inches, in editions of 4

Time of Change

  • 9 gelatin silver prints, 1961, 1963, 1963/no later than 1969, 1964, 1965, 1965/no later than 1968, sized roughly 5×7, 10×6, 7×10, 6×10, 7×8, 5×8
  • 3 gelatin silver print contact sheets, 1963/later, 1965/later, each sized 24×20 inches, in editions of 4

East 100th Street

  • 3 gelatin silver prints, 1966, 1966-1968, sized roughly 9×7, 8×10, 8×8 inches
  • 2 gelatin silver print contact sheets, 1966-1968/later, each sized 24×20 inches, in editions of 4

Central Park

  • 3 gelatin silver prints, 1992/later, sized roughly 30×62, 32×67 inches, in editions of 5

With 1 additional vitrine filled with miscellaneous vintage contact sheets (in the book alcove).

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Since the advent of the digital display embedded in the back of a hand held camera, the elapsed time in the feedback loop between a shutter click and seeing the resulting image has become markedly shorter. Before that handy screen became ubiquitous, a photographer didn’t know what he or she had captured until the film rolls were developed and contact sheets were made of all the frames. There was no on-the-fly assessment (aside from instinct), no ability to see what had succeeded or failed, and no way to make adjustments or reshoots based on those results.

These constraints forced photographers to evolve novel ways to manage the uncertainty. Some responded by working methodically, pre-visualizing each and every frame. Others shot more freely and improvisationally, making multiple variants of a composition when it was clear that some magic was happening, hoping that slight rearrangements might provide editing options later. Regardless of which approach a photographer might take, the decisions were largely hidden from view when the finished prints were selected and made – only the best images ever made the cut and the secondary pictures were largely left behind. So when a photographer allows us to closely examine his or her contact sheets, there is a sense of pulling back the curtain – we are brought inside his or her mind, the split second choices made between one composition and the next showing us how he or she approached the task of visual problem solving.

This show uses a handful of Bruce Davidson’s most notable projects as the subject matter for a deeper investigation of his contact sheets. For each project, a few singular largely vintage prints surround the relevant contact sheets, allowing us to not only play the game of finding the final images among the surrounding flow, but also to consider how Davidson moved from frame to frame in search of the durably resonant photographic moments that ultimately emerged.

Davidson’s 1959 series Brooklyn Gang followed the wanderings of The Jokers, as the teenagers gathered in groups, hung out, and strode along the boardwalk. One contact sheet starts in the sand underneath the boardwalk, as clusters of young people lounge in the backlit shadows. The group then moved into a wide open hall, where one young girl placed herself in front of a mirrored cigarette vending machine, posing and arranging her hair. Davidson circled around her as the boys milled around, talking, goofing around, and rolling up their sleeves, and eventually, the composition coalesced, with the girl and her reflection falling into alignment and the gestures of a nearby boy creating angled movement.

When that scene finished, Davidson followed them back under the boardwalk, where he was attracted by the light as it fell through the slats above, and eventually onto a bus, where the couples laughed and sat together. A second contact sheet continues the progression, from boardwalk bars, to lazy strolls, and to the subway ride home. What’s clear is that Davidson was most interested in fleeting flashes of individual personality and layered group dynamics, and he often seemed to be patiently waiting and observing, thinking about how to visually frame and arrange those moments when they did eventually occur.

In the early 1960s, Davidson turned his attention to the Civil Rights movement and his images from that period were gathered into a body of work called Time of Change. One contact sheet from the project finds Davidson at the 1963 March on Washington. The massiveness of the crowds seemed to defy making a memorable photograph, even with the sea of bodies and the reflecting pool providing contrasts of texture. He tries several different approaches and framings, moving back and forth, some squared off and others unbalanced, with a few closer in, cropping out any surroundings and focusing on the people.

A second sheet comes from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. After trying to make an arrangement with a black boy and alternately a white nun and priest come together, Davidson came upon the now famous young black man with his face painted white and the word VOTE on his forehead. He seems to have quickly realized that this could be the basis for something special, and so he walked along, trying to get the framing and spacing right between the first man and the next man in the march carrying an American flag – it took him half a dozen tries to get one where both men are looking in the right direction and the flag is blowing out. The last images on the sheet find Davidson looking at the white people in the passing cars, in effect, turning the march inside out by observing those who were watching the marchers.

Other contact sheets dive into Davidson’s 1958 Circus project, where clowns stand and smoke in the rain, surrounded by muddy lots, shadowy tents, and weary elephants, and his East 100th Street series, where his famous image of the girl on the fire escape turns out to have variant poses that include a stuffed animal bunny.

In the simplest sense, this is a straightforward survey show of some of Davidson’s most notable projects, but the addition of the contact sheet angle gives the standard format some further interest and energy. The sheets make it clear that Davidson was effectively embedded in these situations, his understated presence allowing him the time to better connect with his sitters and see the nuances of the larger scenes. In each case, his now signature photograph didn’t come as a quick, “lucky” one-off shot; instead, doing the work to be at the right place at roughly the right time was part of the solution, but getting the resonant image also required the patience to keep tuning the composition until the pieces fell into place. It reminds us that great photography is often built on an extended series of almosts and might-have-beens that only sometimes converge on the exactly right.

Collector’s POV: The individual prints in this show are priced between $4500 and $28000, while the contact sheets are $10000 each. Davidson’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past few years. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $1000 and $18000.

Bruce Davidson, Howard Greenberg Gallery

One comment

  1. Elizabeth Marcus /

    What a wonderful, thoughtful, insightful review. Makes me realize I must return to see the show a second time.

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JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 black and white photographic works, framed in grey and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the ... Read on.

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