Dec 192011

Talk at Milk Gallery

Every picture has a story.

These stories remain hidden

for years until a voice from behind

the lens speaks out.  Bruce spent

Saturday evening offering advice to

young photographers, while revealing

the secrets, mistakes, and lucky

encounters he found in New York



Know Your Hometown

Photographing at home can be tough.  The streets and faces we see everyday can loose their mystique.  We dream of far off lands and lament the boredom at home as we walk aimlessly in search of a great photograph.  Bruce Davidson has been focusing on tiny sections of New York City since the 1960’s.  By distilling the city down to a handful of blocks or just a few people, Bruce managed to give us a brilliant survey of life in New York City over the last fifty years.  Between the highs and the lows, he spent Saturday evening explaining how and why he took certain pictures.

USA. New York City. 1966. East 100th Street. © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photo

At The Beginning

The first major body of work that Bruce tackled was on East 100th Street in Harlem.  After the formation of Central Park in 1857, northern Manhattan became home to many of the displaced families who used to occupy the park.  But when the park was finally cleared for design, the families were forced to take up residence in the new neighborhood of Harlem.  Over the coming decades Harlem would see an influx of money and talent during its Renaissance.  Musicians from around the country would flock to the famous jazz clubs where Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong would call home.

The music never stopped entirely, but after World War II northern Manhattan fell into disrepair.  In the bleak years during the Vietnam War, Bruce decided to photograph a small section of one block on East 100th Street.  He brought a 4×5 view camera and a tripod to document his findings.  He always knew that he wanted to print the images very large.  The added detail of the 4×5 negative was a deliberate choice.  Photography is never a secretive practice for Bruce.  He prefers his subjects to know they are being photographed.  What better way to reveal the process than walking around with the camera equivalent of an accordion.

—Lesson 1

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.”

Oh S^&*, insert foot in mouth.  Can you imagine the embarrassment of that slip up?  The moment of humility stayed with Bruce for the rest of his life.  He reminded us to be sensitive to our subjects, their feelings, and how they view the world.  Even though Bruce graduated from Harvard, the young twenty five year old, still had a few things to learn.

Many photographers are drawn to impoverished conditions. The extremes of wealth and poverty lend themselves well to photography.  But we must always remember to be aware of people we meet and not say things which might be insensitive.

USA. New York City. 1966. East 100th Street. © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photo

The Art Model

In the middle of the East 100th Street series, Bruce met a young woman who wanted to do some modeling downtown.  He figured he could pass her photos on to the art schools or an editor or two.  Bruce had her pose for a few photographs.  The one above made the final series.  Keeping true to his word, Bruce passed the photographs along and got the women some work.

—Lesson 2

Pictures rarely change the world.  We would love our pictures to stop a war, cease a famine or correct some injustice, but it hardly happens.  This obstacle does not need to prevent a photographer from doing something nice for their subject.  A small gesture, through a casual connection, was all this woman needed to get her modeling off of the ground.  In the end, Bruce got his pictures, she got her modeling gigs and we were gifted East 100th Street.  Its a win/win/win situation.

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

Ask Permission

One day Bruce saw a man on the subway with an interesting face.  The scars cut clear across the his eye and cheek.  Bruce must have been staring a few seconds too long because it prompted the man to say, “You better not take my picture.”  Bruce assured him that he never took someone’s picture without their permission.  Inside his camera bag, he carried a small 5×7 book with examples of his work.  He handed the book over to the man as an invitation.  Surprised by Bruce’s candid approach, he flipped through the pages, commenting, “You take nice pictures, you can take my picture.”  Thus an unwilling subject was transformed into a willing model.

—Lesson 3

This is actually a two fold lesson.  First, carrying a small book with examples of your work is a good idea.  Its such a simple solution for a street photographer because it allows people to see the quality of your images.  As a result they are at ease.  Its also doubles as a conversation starter with someone who might be “less than friendly.”

The second lesson is that there is nothing wrong with asking for permission.  Even though this pose is clearly staged its still a striking photograph.  It gives up none of its pictorial power by using a complicit model and…Bruce avoided a potentially ugly confrontation with a man who was no stranger to a street fight.

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

The Police Are Helpful

In the entire Subway series, one image stands out as incredibly violent.  When I saw the exhibition up at Aperture Gallery, I could not help but think, “How on earth did Bruce get this picture without getting shot.” It was taken with a wide angle lens, so I figured Bruce must have been an arms length from the scene.

It turns out that this picture has an added layer of complexity.  The man holding the gun is actually an undercover police officer.  Bruce was helping the NYPD capture muggers in the subway.  He figured since he had already been mugged three times, walking around with two undercover cops might not be a bad idea.  They needed a decoy and he didn’t mind the company.

To entice a would-be robber Bruce carried a map, played clueless and carried his camera on his chest (as he usually does).  Within a few days someone tried to rob him, except this time the cops pounced on the guy.  Bruce turned and fire the only shot.  The man was arrested, Bruce got to keep his camera, and the NYPD caught one more thief.

—Lesson 4

Building on the lesson Bruce learned with the model, photographers can develop mutually beneficial relationships with other people.  The dynamic between the police and Bruce yielded one of his most striking pictures in the entire series.  He helps them, they help him…again its a good way to go.  Many photographers like to be secretive about their works in progress, but Bruce shows us how a few extra hands can be of service.

USA. New York. Central Park. 1992. Angel of the Waters Fountain at Bethesda Terrace. © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photo

Once in a Blue Moon

Like many of us, Bruce always wanted to shoot for National Geographic.  He spent years propositioning their office to send him to the Congo to photograph gorillas or to visit the savannah to capture elephants.  National Geographic never sent Bruce abroad.  They did however allow him to shoot a series on Central Park.

One evening, he and his assistant were shooting around Bethesda Fountain.  She was on one side, holding a flash. Bruce was on the other side, yelling “Fire” when he needed her to release the flash.  After a few tries, he said “Fire” again and then someone in the bushes said “Fire” too.  They decided it was time to get out of there.

The next evening he came back and got this shot on his own.  He said to hedge his bets, he consulted with an astronomer at the Natural History Museum to approximate the angle of the moon that time of year.  Everything came together as moon lined up with “The Angel of the Waters” and he succeeded in finding a new angle on a popular landmark.

—Lesson 5

The Central Park story is loaded with useful tips.  First, National Geographic publishes an index of their magazine.  Bruce suggested all of the far off trips he wanted to take, but decided to make item #10 in his proposal “Central Park.”  They had not done a story on Central Park in almost fifteen years and they were due for an update.  He suggested proposing something based on the index, because if they just ran a story on Peru, chances are they will not run a new one unless something earth shattering occurs.

Second, photographing landmarks is a challenge.  Anything that appears on a post card is going to give you some trouble.  Its imperative to find a unique angle or alignment to make a well known landmark come alive.  Eclipses, storms, and moon alignment are the added details that separate a post card from a National Geographic photograph.

Not every shot works out on the first try.  Bruce needed to leave and come back for this shot to work.  Avoid get frustrated when things don’t line up.  Even though National Geographic never did send Bruce to Africa, we can learn something from his patience.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, gets their fair share of rejection.  But keep at it, and continue to search for inventive ways to approach your work and its promotion. Eventually things will fall into place.

Thank You

Evenings with a photographer like Bruce are opportunities that should not be missed.  Its not as if you can just write to Bruce on Facebook or shoot him an email.   He went out of his way to gear the talk directly to the needs young photographers and the least we can do to thank him is show up.  In return, we are given a wealth of knowledge that took Bruce decades to collect.  In addition to Bruce, I would like to give a special thanks to David Helphill & Song Chong of Milk Gallery for putting together a wonderful evening.


Best-Adam Marelli





  13 Responses to “Five Lessons from Bruce Davidson”

  1. Hi Adam,

    Very informative and interesting post. I wish I was there that evening, a bit to far away. Thank you for posting the spirit, mood and stories of that evening via your website. Feels a bit like I was there. :-)

    Cheers, Bas

    • Hey Bas,

      Happy to bring the evening to you. Its great that Milk has started running these events. Most of the good Magnum Events usually happen on your side of the Atlantic in London or Paris. Great to have one stateside.

      And I really enjoyed how Bruce gave such candid stories and pieces of advice. Surely we can all benefit from his experience.


  2. Great little article. Really enjoyed it!

  3. What a fantastic article! Thank you, Adam!

  4. Hi Adam,

    I always enjoy your posting for practical advice on being a street savvy photographer in addition to your in depth analysis of photographic composition.
    Thank you. Keep up the good work!



    • Thank Super P,

      Since Bruce is an old school guy his talks are not filled with the jumbo jumbo of other art speak I hear elsewhere. He speaks clearly about his approach and techniques. It is refreshing.

      I wish that more photographers would stop trying to make their work into some existential out of body experience. The effect of an image may be complex, but it should not prevent us from discussing the story behind the image in basic terms.

      If Einstien could explain relativity to a bunch of laymen I think photography should be accessible to everyone. : )

      Best Adam

  5. I bought “Subway” at the height of my leicaphilia, under the mistaken impression that he used a leica for that book (I must confess to being tardy on my online research). I’m so glad I got his book – its AMAZING, a veritable time capsule of a bye-gone era. Great article Adam.


    • Hey KL,

      Subway is indeed from another era. New York City is almost unrecognizable from its former 1980′s self. Most people are not complaining though. It’s very cool to see the transition, but should also be a reminder that a city should retain its character and not turn into Disneyland.

      As for the wide angles, I know Bruce has no particular camera fidelity. He uses 35mm and 4×5. Not sure if I now him to use 2-1/4, but I would not put it past him.

      Do you have a favorite picture in the book?
      Happy reading!

      Best Adam

  6. Adam,
    Loved this article about shooting at home. I’m a amateur photographer at RIT and I’ve been looking for ways to make shooting at home more exciting. This definitely inspired me, thank you!

    • Hey Darcy,

      Most of the answers are right in front of us, we just need a friendly push. I hope your home provides all the inspiration you need. If not, come back and consult Bruce.


  7. Excellent stuff. Always good to get some into the practicalities.

  8. *get some insight

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