Bruce Davidson, Time of Change

The best part about the Annie Leibowitz exhibit at the High Museum (other than the John Ashcroft photo) was when I left and walked downstairs to the bookstore and spent half an hour looking at Bruce Davidson’s civil-rights era images in “Time of Change”. There are two images in the book that knocked me out completely, and most of the rest were similarly strong.

My favorite is the image that follows the one below. The next photograph (unavailable on is of the same arrest, but from a vantage in which the demonstrator’s feet are right up in Davidson’s lens, and the two cops are obscuring everything but a portion of the young man’s face (and eyes) as they haul him off to jail. Davidson’s succeeded in completely abstracting the moment, and in doing so, he distilled the emotion of the event into something far beyond “another picture of a protestor getting arrested”.

Bruce Davidson, New York, 1964

By and large, it seems that the art photography establishment (!) can be pretty cynical about photojournalism (and vice versa – why the hate?), but from where I stand, great photography is great photography. Personally, I prefer work like Davidson’s to Jack and Meg any day, and I like the White Stripes.

Then again, museums are like ball clubs. A place like the High needs a marquee slugger to bring in the occasional fan, and the presence of Annie + the cache of Vanity Fair & Rolling Stone =’s gate receipts. The journeyman shortstop who hits, runs, and lets his glove do the talking isn’t going to keep people in the sky boxes.

If you’re looking for a photographic role model, and you’ve churned through a few, spend some time with Bruce Davidson. His pictures have integrity beyond passing fashion; in most of his books, it’s hard to find a picture that isn’t in some way tremendous. The guy’s got a pretty outstanding on-base percentage.

It’s all too easy to insulate ourselves from the world of politics and social change. Sometimes it seems that art (not just photography, but poetry and sculpture and painting and … ) is engaged in play that’s too cerebral to speak up, or too didactic to whisper. While Davidson’s pictures are political to a fault, they’re also pure documents, flat as the earth, exacting and well spoken. Here is the world; this is what I saw. A street aesthetic if there ever was one.

Bruce Davidson, Birmingham, 1963

Perhaps it’s because I’m beginning to meet people here in Georgia who could have been in Davidson’s pictures from back then, that the realness of what he captured is startlingly relevant, more than 40 years later. I do know that in this age of celebrity inmates, manufactured meta-fictions, and senselesswar, I feel lucky that a photographer has dedicated his career to meaningful work that has the potential to make a difference, regardless of the price tag, or if anyone will bother to stop and look.

Thanks, Bruce. You just might save us from ourselves.

Bruce Davidson on Magnum
Time of Change on Amazon
Limited Edition Time of Change @ Photo-eye
My two favorite Davidson books: Subway and East 100th St.
Review of “Time of Change” on

6 thoughts on “Bruce Davidson, Time of Change”

  1. Davidson was the featured lecturer at PhotoAlliance a few weeks back. I’ve no doubt you would have liked his stories and manner. One thing that struck me was how many of the people who were photographed in the 1960’s and 1970’s are people whom Davidson *still knows* — he could point at a 1966 photo of a poor family from the south and say: “the older boy dies in a car wreck about ten years ago, but the little kid here has his own delivery company and he bought a new truck a couple of weeks ago, the baby is going into graduate school this fall and the dad passed away but the mom is working on becoming a preacher” or something like that. Not the typical just-passing-through PJ approach at all. All individuals.

  2. Also,
    The fact that Bruce still gets up every morning at 5:30 and
    hits the darkroom for 5-6 hours is amazing! We should all hope
    to have such dedication…

  3. The first photo book I ever owned was East 100th Street, which my girlfriend bought for me after I wouldn’t shut up about the traveling exhibit of it we’d seen. A motif that underscores the breathtaking intimacy of those images is the frequent appearance in them of the enlarging paper boxes that obviously contained the prints from earlier shoots he had brought with him. It isn’t hard to believe he still knows these people.

  4. This is a great tribute. Beautiful writing. I love his subway pictures too — so different in color. There’s a greater degree of anonymity in them but the same directness.

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