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A photo life before your eyes
on 22 May 2010
Jane Livingston, in her excellent book `The New York School', suggests that many photographers regard the medium of the photo book as something to aim for and in the section dealing with Bruce Davidson she quotes him: `My work is about being bodies of work. You have to see the whole thing to see each part'. Steidl, with these remarkable three volumes of 944 pages and 834 photos, now make this possible.
A couple of Davidson's photo books are now very expensive so it could be that these three books are about as close as you'll get to see some of his great photos but it's worth saying that the original East 100 Street' book with 123 photos has ninety-one here and `Brooklyn Gang' with seventy in the original has fifty-one here. Other books with extensive coverage in these pages include: Circus 1958, sixty-three; England/Scotland 1960, sixty-five; New York Subway 1980, nineteen; Central Park 1992-1995 eighty-three.
Book one, 1954-1961 with fifteen sections gets off to a beautiful start with photos of John and Kate Wall who Davidson met by chance in 1955 while on military service in Arizona. John was ninety-four and Kate seventy-nine and in just thirteen superb photos Davidson reveals the depth of love between these two. One photo on page thirty has an extraordinary close-up of their holding hands. Another essay in this first book that grabbed me was England/Scotland 1960 which captured the tiredness of the country after years of austerity and before the Swinging England of the Sixties.
Book two, 1961-1966 with twenty-three sections has some powerful photos of the Freedom Riders 1961, South 1962, Freedom March 1963, Birmingham, Alabama 1963, March to Washington and the Selma to Montgomery March 1965. In all 109 reportage photos covering the politics of the era. The Chicago Loop 1963 with just seven photos reveals Davidson's ability to capture vibrant street imagery.
Book three, 1966-2009 with fourteen sections which vary enormously. Eight deal with various aspects of New York (including the extensive East 100 Street and Central Park essays). Others cover the Oklahoma City bombing victims and survivors from 1992, Senator Max Cleland 1999, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam which Davidson photographed for Esquire magazine and two short essays, with thirty-eight photos on trees and plants in Paris 2005-2006 and Los Angeles 2008-2009.
Steidl have turned out their usual impeccable product with the 834 photos printed as 175 screen tritones on matt art. The page design is simple and straightforward: one photo a page with generous margins and the books come in a sturdy slipcase. The only downside, in my view, is the placing, in each book, of Davidson's thoughtful notes and observations in the back pages instead of placing these short pieces on the virtually empty title pages that kick-off each photo essay.
The fifty-two essays in these books are as wide ranging as possible yet they all show Davidson's unique ability to capture the essence of the subject and reveal it in page after page of remarkable photos. Looking through these books at a photographic life is a rare treat.