An Interview with Bruce Davidson

A preview of an interview from the fall issue of Aperture magazine, conducted by curator Charlotte Cotton with the legendary documentarian Bruce Davidson.

The fall issue of Aperture magazine comprises nine in-depth interviews with major photographers who have spent their lives working as image makers; some subjects have doggedly been at it for more than six decades. Here, we offer a preview of one interview, conducted by curator Charlotte Cotton, with the legendary documentarian Bruce Davidson. “Too much in photography is shoot and leave,” Bruce Davidson says in this candid conversation, referring to how he has remained in contact with the subjects seen in many of his now-iconic projects, including his work on the civil rights movement. Now eighty-one, Davidson has been looking back through his archive, revisiting older projects, including a series shot in Los Angeles 1964. For this interview, excerpted below, Cotton visited Davidson at his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side last April, where the two spoke about the arc of his extraordinary career that began in the 1950s and continues today.

This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of the Aperture Photography App.

black and white photograph

New York City, 1959, from the series Brooklyn Gang

Charlotte Cotton: How did you develop your skills as a photographer when you were young?

Bruce Davidson: There was a camera store in town—Austin Camera. They took me on as a stock boy: I dusted the cameras, cleaned the toilets and the floors. And an old country gentleman came in. His name was Al Cox and he had a studio in the town. He told me, “Anytime you want to come by, kid, I’m there.”

So I did. He was an incredible craftsman. First of all, he could make dye-transfer prints, so I was exposed to the process. He was a commercial photographer working for the newspaper and I’d go along with him. He would shoot with a Rolleiflex and a flash. Whenever my mother called to find me, I was always with Al Cox. When I was admitted to RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology], Al read somewhere that the first thing I would be doing was pinhole photography, so he made me a pinhole camera with interchangeable pinholes. So he sent me off to college. He could also build strobes and was a ham radio operator. He was a genius old guy—he was an old guy to me.

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Selma, Alabama, 1965, from the series Time of Change

CC: Tell me about the relationship you were forming with cameras and all the material stuff of photography, like chemicals. It’s one thing—which I’m sure we will come back to—to think of photographic capture, of looking and learning about the world through photography. But it sounds like you were also learning through Al Cox about technology and materials of photography and about how to render something, not just capture it.

BD: It meant a lot to me. I bought an old 35 mm Contax camera when I was at RIT. Walking the streets at Rochester, I found the Lighthouse Mission. It was very atmospheric—a place where these vagrant men would come to get a bologna sandwich and listen to the sermons. I was already exposed to the idea of not a picture but a series.

CC: And that would have meant the picture magazines at that time, such as Time?

BD: Well, yes. My hero was Gene Smith [W. Eugene Smith]. There were two young women in my class at RIT and one of them had a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book The Decisive Moment, and she showed it to me. There was also an inspiring teacher, Ralph Hattersley. He showed us Smith, Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, and others. This really sent me in that direction—not imitating, but finding the way I wanted to photograph.

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Blonde girl sitting in the park, London, 1960

CC: What did you feel you were seeing in Cartier-Bresson’s photographs? What resonated with you?

BD: The way he saw life. Life was moving; the world was in flux.

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James Duffy and Sons Circus, Ireland, 1967, from the series Circus

CC: So did this feel attainable to you—did figures like Smith and Cartier-Bresson seem close to you?

BD: Oh yes. There was a gallery in New York called the Witkin Gallery. And Gene Smith used to go there. I used to go up to the gallery and see him and I just couldn’t say anything. He saw that I was doing good work but I couldn’t touch him. Later I really got to know Cartier-Bresson. After college at RIT, I spent some time in the photography department at Yale—I was in the graphic designer Herbert Matter’s class. I was drafted and sent to the Arizona desert, but before I went I photographed the Yale football team, not the game, but the tension and the mood among the players. I submitted the pictures to Life magazine. A year went by, and then they ran them. The captain in charge of the labs had been in the barbershop and had seen my pictures in Life. He burst into the darkroom and said, “Private, did you take these pictures?” I said, “Yes, sir, I did.” And he said, “Take that mop away, you are photographing the general this afternoon.” That was a real decisive moment.

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Yale football, New Haven, Connecticut, 1954, from the series Yale Football

Somehow, I got really lucky and I was sent to the photo-labs for the Signal Corps in Paris. I was in the supreme headquarters in Paris and there were French soldiers in this international camp and I took up a friendship with a French soldier who was a painter. He took me home to his mother’s house in Montmartre to have lunch. And that’s when I saw the widow hobbling up the street. “This woman lives above us in a garret,” he told me, “and she knew Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin.” I had a motor scooter, so I would go up from the fort to Montmartre to photograph her. That’s when I submitted my work to Cartier-Bresson at the Magnum Paris office. It took a couple of weeks before I got an appointment with him. He was very interested in the contact sheets and the rhythm implicit in shooting. Then I walked outside with him and it was like the street was made up of his pictures. All those moments were there if you could just take a chance.

To read the complete interview, click here to buy issue #220. Subscribe and never miss an issue.