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 magnumphotos.com) 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”.
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 Washingtonpost.com