An American captures a changing UK
Photographer Bruce Davidson shares a joint exhibition at the Huntington.
By Steve Appleford, email@example.com
ovember 23, 2014 | 12:39 a.m.
In 1960, photographer Bruce Davidson needed an escape route. He had just spent 11 months in Brooklyn shooting a teenage street gang for Esquire magazine, and now he found himself getting a lot of unwanted attention from grown-up gangsters who suspected Davidson was carrying wads of cash.
There were threatening phone calls. Davidson turned to his agency, the esteemed Magnum Photos, where Cornel Capa had an idea. “He said, ‘I’ll set you up in England, working for the Queen magazine,’” Davidson recalls the older photographer suggesting. “‘Nothing could be safer.’”
The trip began a meaningful relationship with the country for Davidson, as the young photographer traveled in a rented convertible, driving “around until I found something,” ultimately capturing an ancient country adjusting to the late-20th century in vivid black-and-white. The result of that first trip to the UK (and others that followed) is now on view through March 9 at the Huntington Library in San Marino.
The joint exhibition, “Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland,” collects the diverse work of two accomplished artists into a distinctly American view of the UK, mingling Davidson’s street-level portraits and reportage with Caponigro’s epic landscapes.
During that first trip, Davidson saw businessmen in bowler hats and itinerant young travelers on the streets of London. He photographed evidence of royalty and scores of the middle classes and the down-and-out amid urban and rural settings. Later that decade he returned to the British Isles to focus on other parts of the society there, including a traveling circus in Ireland and miners in Wales.
“It’s very close to my heart, particularly the ’60 work,” says Davidson, now 81. “There I was, just a kid with a camera, and I had an assignment from the Queen magazine. I didn’t want any of their help, I told them — I just have to go off by myself. I want to find it within myself.”
“It was on a quest. I was looking for something, which I sometimes found, sometimes I didn’t,” he explains. “But that’s how all my work has been. I call it the outside and the inside.”
On a recent visit for the exhibition’s opening this month, Davidson sits in the gallery wearing shades of khaki and olive, the traditional garb of a photographer comfortable working out in the field. The show originated at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven this summer, curated by the Huntington’s Jennifer A. Watts and Yale’s Scott Wilcox.
Davidson looks on the wall where pictures from the traveling circus are collected, and says that one of the children photographed now runs the circus. “The circus is a family,” he says, noting that after a photograph is taken, the story continues. “There’s still life on the bone.”
Nearby were hung several pictures from his series on Welsh miners, a project he says was inspired by earlier pictures by the groundbreaking Robert Frank. “I was just drawn not only to those photographs but to the life,” he says. He traveled to Northern Wales in 1965 with a local poet, Horace Jones, who had been a miner earlier in life. “The miners felt comfortable with one of them and a camera person. It was a time when the mines were closing — what we would call punch mines and pit ponies, all that was going to go.”
In more recent years, Davidson’s attention has been turned closer to home. He is currently shooting a series of photographs of dioramas at the Natural History Museum in New York, where he might shoot with his lens pressed against the glass or step back and watch visitors interact with the scenes of wildlife frozen in time.
“I work out of a state of mind. I don’t work because I read something in the New York Times or Vanity Fair. I have to feel that it’s right to do this now,” Davidson explains. “There is something about those dead animals that make me come to life. They’re amazing. I think about an eagle, and looking at the feathers — you don’t get a chance to do that, even if you’re a member of the Audubon Society.”
He’s also spent quality time in and around Los Angeles looking for signs of wildlife on the edges of the city, setting up a darkroom in a local motel room closet.
Davidson also reunited with Bobby Powers, the teen gang leader he first photographed in 1959, after his subject’s long life as drug dealer, user and, finally, drug counselor at age 71. Davidson and his wife, Emily Haas Davidson, collaborated on “Bobby’s Book,” recalling decades of Powers’ life. One day while piecing the collection together, Powers was talking about his mother while Davidson poured over old proof sheets. One image he’d never noticed before of a woman crossing the street while smoking a cigarette suddenly caught Davidson’s attention.
“He was very close to his mother. His mother was a drunk, and she fed seven kids. They used to eat oatmeal three times a day,” says Davidson. He showed Powers the image. “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s my mother.’ The life of a photograph goes on. They stay there a long, long time.”
What: “Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro: Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland”
Where: The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
When: Through March 9
More info: (626) 405-2100, www.huntington.org