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Matinee: Bruce Davidson's 'Subway' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

19 July 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the forty-second in our series of Saturday matinees today: Bruce Davidson's 'Subway'.

This 53-minute production was recorded at Strand Books in New York City on the occasion of the re-publication by Steidl of Davidson's Subway (here's a list of Davidson's complete works at Amazon).

The evening began with a 20-minute slide show of his most familiar images followed by a question and answer session that covers a lot of ground in a slyly amusing way.

The first part is not simply about the images but more than a few times, Davidson tells you what happened to the people in the images, many of whom he had kept in touch with over the years.

In the second part of the evening, he tells some stories from his sixty year career.

Who, someone in the audience asks, influenced him?

Cartier-Bresson. He was his mentor, he answers. But then he tells you the story.

He had managed to get a date with one of the only two girls in his class at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She ran up to her room to get a book on photography she loved. It turned out to be Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment.

Gee, he thought, if he could make photos like that, she might like him. So he bought a used Leica with some money intended otherwise and started shooting the streets like her idol Cartier-Bresson.

But it didn't work, he confesses.

Or maybe it did. He subsequently went to Paris and met Cartier-Bresson who did indeed become his mentor.

He talks about shooting a single block in East Harlem with a 4x5 Linhof and how different that experience was from working in 35m. How you are consumed by the process of framing the image in the ground glass, concerned with the quality of the image. And you can't be discreet. It's obvious what you are doing.

He talks about his own disenchantment as a young man, which he expressed in a project photographing the story of a gang. Despite the years, he still sees the gang members, their lives much different now. At the time of this presentation, the old gang leader was dropping by every Saturday night because his wife was writing a book about him.

He also shot the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. There's a story there too. How he got up at 4:30 in the morning to snap off a couple of frames of the blown out Oldsmobile in which Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan, was shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. He got out of there just as the police arrived, guns drawn to discourage any "independent investigation."

He didn't always have to run, though.

He explains his technique as simply starting a conversation with a person he wants to photograph. To, you know, distinguish himself from a creep.

He'd ask what kind of dog that was, for example, and exclaim over it. Then he'd ask if he could take a photo of the dog (of course), and follow up by asking if he could take a photo of the owner with the dog (sure!).

Which always worked better than walking up to someone and asking them out of the blue, "Can I take a photo of you and your dog?"

If someone expressed reluctance ("Well, I don't know..."), he had a secret weapon. A little book of his images he carried with him. He'd respond to their reluctance by asking if they'd like to look at his work. They'd usually agree to that. So he'd produce the little book. And that would win the day.

That's how he got a lot of his shots of the New York subway system.

We weren't sure we'd like the format of a short slide show and a lengthy question and answer segments. But we enjoyed the images and the stories as well. You get the scenes and the behind-the-scenes perspective, both. It's a perfect way to appreciate Davidson's skills on both sides of the camera.

Incidentally, the artwork in the Summer 2104 issue of The Threepenny Review (the publication we brought to your attention in A Literary Magazine For Photographers), is all Davidson with scans from Magnum and Steidl. In addition, there's an essay by Arthur Lubow on Davidson, featuring the three volume Outside Inside and four volume Black and White published by Steidl.

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