NEW YORK — Bruce Davidson’s apartment is a tranquil refuge of shabby chic filled with Victorian-style furniture, chintz-covered sofas, damask chairs, lace curtains and towering houseplants.
It’s easy to understand why he’d want to surround himself in flowery and ornamental comfort.
One of the most influential documentary-style photographers of the last half-century, Davidson’s unflinching eye has focused on subjects such as dwarfs, Brooklyn gangs and the Civil Rights movement of the early Sixties.
The rambling Upper West Side apartment, decorated by his wife Emily, renews his spirits after long days of shooting the harsh realities of those who dwell on the fringes of society.
Davidson, 61, is drawn to people and places in transition. His first project was about a Parisian woman dubbed “The Widow Montmartre,” who knew Lautrec, Gauguin and Renoir. “It was about times past,” says Davidson.
Several years later, he focused on a gang living in an abandoned part of Brooklyn. The pictures were published in Esquire in 1959 with a text by Norman Mailer.
He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962 to photograph the Civil Rights movement; the images are collected in the book “Time of Change”.
The subway was also on the cusp of change when Davidson began photographing the trains in the spring of 1980. Even Central Park was undergoing a transformation when Davidson shot it in 1992.
“It was a dust bowl,” he recalls. “Now, it’s a Japanese garden.”
On a recent chilly day, Davidson offers a visitor a cup of tea and settles into a soft, worn couch to discuss “Subway”. The series depicts a part of New York life that, to some extent, no longer exists. The graffiti, crumbling stations and human stench have, for the most part, been sanitized. Many of the panhandlers and homeless people have been swept away. But Davidson’s series and book are alive and well.
St. Ann’s Press is republishing “Subway” with 42 never-before-seen images. An exhibition of photos from the book will be on view at the Hermès gallery at 691 Madison Ave., Jan. 23-Feb. 28. The exhibition coincides with the centennial of the New York City subway and the upcoming 25th anniversary of Davidson’s groundbreaking work.
When “Subway” was first published in 1986, Davidson wanted to include more photos, but was constrained by the publisher’s desire to hold down the page count. This time, he says, he’s calling the shots. “I now have enough stature where I can edit the book the way I want,” he says. “I went through 10,000 photos. I used Kodachrome film, which doesn’t fade, so I knew the pictures were preserved.
That Hermès wanted to do an exhibit “was so amazing to me,” says Davidson. “[Jean-Louis Dumas, chairman of the company] had the original book and understood it.”
But isn’t an exhibition about the subway’s survivors and victims an odd subject for a company that sells $4,500 handbags? “The subway is a great equalizer,” Davidson says. “Some of the people who shop at Hermès take the subway.”
During his five years of work on the subway project, Davidson says he explored 600 miles of track and uncovered all sorts of layers of life in a bestial and beautiful subterranean world.
“In ’79, the city was in terrible shape and so was the subway,” says the photographer, whose modus operandi was asking potential subjects if he could take their picture, then offering to send them a copy of the shot.
Many of the images have the look and feel of traditional portraiture, capturing the fear, anxiety, indifference and ecstacy of the subjects. There’s a stonefaced couple in business suits and an elderly woman lifting her dress. Even an infant peering out from a baby carrier on his father’s chest looks wary.
A number of Davidson’s subjects have come full circle, including a drug-addicted gang member who is now a substance abuse counselor.
In 1984, when the International Center of Photography held an exhibit of subway photographs, a young rapper named Fred Brathwaite, a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy, attended the show. “He was a graffiti artist and wanted to acquire some of the prints,” Davidson recalls. “He came to my apartment with some friends and we struck up a friendship on the basis of those photos.”
Brathwaite contributed an essay for “Subway,” in which he identifies with the graffiti writers and praises Davidson for his “documentarian’s heart and cinematographer’s eye.”
But not all of the images are reminders of the New York’s darker days, such as a train heading toward a station with the Manhattan skyline in the distance and a photo of the city covered under a blanket of snow. There are women in wispy dresses waiting on a platform, magnolia trees blossoming in the sunlight and a bittersweet view of the twin towers at dawn seen through a subway window, all evidence of Davidson’s love for the city.
For a long time, the photographer was fearless, entering the bowels of the subway and taking risks like riding the trains late into the night. “You won’t stop until you get mugged,” his wife once told him.
It was bound to happen. Once when he was riding the JJ line out of the tunnel on the Lower East Side and across the Williamsburg Bridge he spotted through the window two teenage boys smoking pot in the next car. Davidson entered their car, but decided not to make eye contact. One of the boys rushed at him with a knife and pressed it to his jugular.
“I was no longer the heroic hunter stalking dangerous prey, but just another pathetic mugging victim,” Davidson writes in the new edition of “Subway.”
It took him some time to regain his confidence. In the spring of 1985, on assignment for New York magazine, Davidson rode the subway with a police decoy unit when a mugger struck, ripping a chain from the decoy’s neck. The mugger then ran toward him, mumbling something about his 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 decoys,” he says. But when Davidson thinks of danger, Selma, Ala. comes to mind.
“How lucky I was that I didn’t get beaten up or shot in the South,” he says. A year ago he located two families he photographed during Selma march. One photo showed a woman holding a baby. “I found that baby,” Davidson says. “She’s an insurance agent for farmers.”
Davidson, who grew up in Oak Park, Ill., first picked up the camera at the age of 10. In 1949, at 16, he won his first prize in the Kodak National High School Competition. After attending the Rochester Institute of Technology and Yale University, and doing a short stint in the army, Davidson in 1957 worked as a freelance photographer for Life Magazine. He became a member of Magnun Photos the next year.
During the following years he won several grants including the first photography award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966 to document one block in East Harlem. The photos were published by Harvard University Press in 1970 in a book called “East 100th Street” and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art that year.
Not all of Davidson’s work is laden with meaning. Early in his career with Magnum, the photo agency received a commission to chronicle the making of “The Misfits.” Davidson got the assignment, and lining the walls in the hall of his apartment are prints of Marilyn Monroe cavorting on the set.
“In the early Sixties I did a lot of fashion photography,” he says. “I don’t do too much anymore because I have difficulty finding meaning in fashion.”
When The New York Times Magazine called some time ago asking Davidson to shoot khaki pants, he begged off. “I said, ‘No, that’s boring,’” he recalls. “Then they said, ‘How about feathers?’ I found a chicken coop and put the model in the coop.”