By Baptiste Lignel, ASX Guest Editor, May 5, 2011
Baptist Lignel: I feel that many of your stories are led by a personal relationship with an individual, rather than by the content of the story (in that sense many stories verge on the portrait). Which is perhaps something you have in common with Eugene Smith.
Bruce Davidson: Everyone who had a Life Magazine subscription in those days was anxious to see W. Gene Smith’s next project. Schweitzer in the Belgium Congo, The Country Doctor, or the Spanish Funeral, all of those were in our consciousness as 17 to 20 year old photographers. I think Gene Smith is a very important fixture in photography, and of course very inspiring.
BL: To me the most striking example is the "Circus" project (book and exhibition). It feels like it has two parts. One where you are telling us about this one person you have a relationship with, and, oh by the way, he is a circus dwarf, but that seems almost secondary in the story.
BD: If you look through my total number of my photographic work, you’ll see that a lot of it is intimate. I call it “outside to the inside”. I don’t photograph stories, my photographs take on a mood, and have a cumulative effect, but there isn’t a beginning a middle and an end. It’s not a “story” story, it’s more a mood piece.
So the dwarf isn’t the story of a dwarf, it’s the emotion that surrounds this little man. At first I was attracted to the dwarf, and then he drove me into the circus. I photographed the circus itself but I didn’t publish it. I didn’t even print it. I edited it maybe, but I didn’t do much with it. At the time it was all about Jimmy Amstrong, and our relationship, and his life as a clown in that particular circus, at that particular time, 1958.
BL: So what happened to those images?
BD: I just kept them. But when I decided to edit my entire archives, I came upon those contact sheets, and I could still remember the emotions. For instance the lovely trapeze artist… I was probably subliminally in love with this beautiful young woman, so I photographed her with a certain respect and a certain distance. It was very beautiful to see these young women go up the rope…
Magnum at that time was a very small organization, twelve rebels. Feisty rebels! We had a picture librarian, Sam Holmes who was an amateur trapeze artist and circus buff, and he told me “there’s a wonderful circus in New Jersey and what’s special about is that it has a white tent, light comes through it, it’s translucent”. Most tents use a heavy canvas, and are dark inside, but here I was able to photograph in natural light with a little Leica!
BL: Then in the book “Circus” there are two additional circuses, and they felt to me as less personal stories.
BD: The second story is on “Barnum & Bailey”, it was a show held in a coliseum. The reason I was sent there on assignment for a magazine was the fact that no longer were there tent shows. They were diminishing, because of television. People could sit in their houses, and watch a circus for free. The audiences now needed to be larger than was possible in tent shows, so they were held in huge coliseums. So they sent me to this particular coliseum, which, by the way, won a prize for its architecture, but was hideously ugly…
Here is a classic circus held in an ugly space. And you could see that it’s about the space, and how the space is separated from the show. And that’s why those photographs are cold and isolating.
Another reason, is that in 58 I was a romantic photographer but when I went back to the circus is 65, I was more in the reality. And maybe I was a little angry, maybe a little disappointed that my beautiful tent shows, the romance of my tent shows had diminished. And now I’m seeing a clearer, sharper reality.
BL: None of the circuses change, only circus environments change.
BD: And I changed in those 7 or 8 years!
BL: And finally the “Duffy Circus” in Ireland. I loved it, it was a family thing, every member of the family had a role in it!
BD: Now what’s interesting is that the Duffy Circus interrupted the work I was doing on East 100th Street, in its second year, in 1967. That’s when I was given this assignment by Holiday magazine. I was getting a little tired, and also I was newly married, so I thought I’d take my wife on a honeymoon to the Duffy Circus. So we took a little time off, and then came back. It was a good break from East 100th street. But what’s important about that break is that I still carried my 4x5 Linhoff view camera, which means that I photographed the “Duffy Circus” in 4x5! Even the trapeze artist!
At the Clyde Beatty in 58, with the help of a roustabout, I was able to climb to the top of the tent and look down, which was very exciting for me. And I wanted to do the same thing at the Duffy Circus. I wanted to photograph the trapeze artists as figures of Art, almost abstracted, so one of the Duffy sons helped me get on top of the tent, where there was a hole, and my wife was on the ground with my strobe connected by a wire. But when I looked down I saw that my wife, who knew nothing about photography at the time, had the strobe pointed in the wrong direction. So I wrote on a little piece of paper: “move the light to the left”. And that piece of paper fluttered down, and she was moving around to catch it like it was a butterfly, in a pathetic way that almost caused me to have tears. Then she looked at the paper, looked at me, moved the light a little bit, and I waved that it was ok. That was a very romantic moment.
So the “Duffy Circus” was photographed in a more classic way, with a 4X5 camera, and that was new for me. A new awareness.
BL: One image that I’d like to confirm the meaning of: the coke vendor seems to have a protective hand on the shoulder of “Little man”, was he then being harassed by the surrounding kids?
BD: The roustabouts would be very protective. There is one picture where one of them is giving Jimmy a massage. Dwarfs get very serious rheumatism, because they have a heavy head and a little body, so the muscles become contracted. The beautiful thing about that circus at the time was that it was a family. It was a world within a world.
And it was also a world in transition because tent shows were going to die out. And I’m attracted to subjects in transition.
BL: And in those subjects you are always attracted to people, for instance “The Spanish priest” is another example where even when on one assignment you go off on a tangent and follow an individual to tell their story.
BD: In that moment I became Cartier-Bresson!
It was so classic. Fortunately that priest was an American who spoke perfect English and led me up to the caves. I was shooting on the film set of a war movie with Alain Delon, and a couple of American actors. The children saw the movie being acted and mimicked it. When the children were lying down and playing dead it was so Cartier-Bresson…
BL: With one difference though: Cartier-Bresson did not bond so much with the people he photographed, when you are the opposite.
BD: To some extent. I spend a lot of time on a subject, and that’s how I achieve some kind of intimacy, because people are used to seeing me, I’m part of the group.
BL: Like in "Brooklyn Gang". Incidentally, I feel this story is not what the title suggests. We do not have the violence we expect in a “gang” story, rather a story about loneliness as a group, and as individuals within the group.
BD: Exactly right! And that is why that body of work has remained fresh over the years. People are still acquiring images from that story.
Remember I wasn’t much older than they were. I could be an uncle, but not a parent! So I stayed aloof, but observing. One of the things I didn’t know is that those kids were very poor. Alcoholism was really rampant in that working class area of Brooklyn. They were completely isolated and abandoned in that community. There was nothing for them.
So I picked up on that mood, which was also within me, because my brother and I were abandoned by our father. So I could understand isolation and abandonment in a subliminal way. I didn’t walk around with a flag saying “I was abandoned, I need a friend!”. It’s all in the atmosphere.
BL: You are not an activist, but, in your own words a “humanist”, could you define the difference?
BD: I don’t think overtly I was political. I didn’t think of my photography as propaganda. I thought of it as imagery, and capturing a mood. Or the atmosphere, or the climate around a given situation, which somehow I was drawn to. For example I wasn’t there to say “Save all dwarfs!”, you know. I could barely save myself…
It was all about passion and how I was attracted to photography. I loved to take pictures.
BL: Yet the encounter with the “Freedom Riders” seemed to have opened up a new field of preoccupation and work for you. Then “East 100th Street” had an official agenda.
BD: Then I was trying to be useful to the community. I don’t think of it as politics, I’m not very good at politics. Whereas my wife is a very vocal activist. But I don’t want to get into any political discussions.
My work came out of a certain political climate, surely.
When I went down to photograph the Freedom Riders in 61, I ambitiously wanted to photograph “Youths in America”, whatever that meant! Then someone told me about that group of college students –“youths”- who were challenging segregation laws, and I didn’t know what that meant! I was from the Midwest, I was white bred, and the only prejudice I had ever encountered was prejudice towards my own family, we were jewish. Anti-Semitism I understood, but civil rights weren’t in my mind at that time.
So I went down thinking I was going to photograph youths on a bus! I didn’t know that it would potentially be very violent.
The first bus has been burnt, and there had been no press, so no visual record, it was just destroyed. For the second bus the federal troops were out, the police were out and there was press. And that’s when I first felt fear, because on that bus ride the soldiers had live ammunition and bayonets. And they were homeboys, southern kids, you know, they were forced to be there, but they didn’t want to be there. Plus there could be sniper fire on the highway from the woods. Anybody could hide in the woods with a rifle and shoot the bus, and there were one or two rifle rounds shot, just so that they could be heard… It was fearsome.
I followed that movement from 61 to 65, not every demonstration, of course, but many and I became sensitized. Man, at the time I was taking fashion pictures! My contract with Vogue was in 1962. I’d go down to Birmingham, then come back and take a fashion picture! So eventually I cut that fashion stuff out. I couldn’t come to grips with both the reality I was observing in the south and some fashion shoot for Vogue.
BL: Then how did you earn your living?
BD: To earn a living I did corporate work. Factories, how things are built, the space telescope, experimental liver transplant on a baby, all kinds of interesting things. And also presidents of corporations. But there I felt I was still within the reality of the country.
BL: So you went from not knowing about discrimination at all to making “East 100th Street” which is all about discrimination in New York, not even in the South.
BD: And I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t spent four years following the civil rights movement.
So I became politicized, but although I rode on the bus I wasn’t a member of CORE or SNCC or any of those organizations.
Nor did I want to be close to Martin Luther King. I didn’t want to be favored in any way. I never actually met him! I was in a room with him, a church, or a press conference, but I never went up and said “I want to show you my work”.
BL: So your grand plan was to make a story about “Youths in America”. If you were 30 today, the age you were when you covered the civil rights issues, what would you do? What do you feel would be the great social challenge in the US today?
BD: Probably the environment. The fact that we eat too much, we drive too much, we spend a lot of money on expensive cars, so it is both consumption and the environment.
That sometimes means becoming aware of what you take for granted.
BL: You are of a generation of photographers who often took their social concern or political belief abroad, to Latin America, or to Viet Nam, but not you.
BD: I went to the Jersey Meadows! My theory was that a country is judged by what it throws away, and we throw away a tremendous amount of things. In the Jersey Meadows I used to pick things and take them home…
When they tore down Penn Station, they took all those incredible statues, huge, and dumped them in the middle of Jersey Meadows, and I found that spot. And I stayed with this scavenger family.
I was involved in those mountainous heaps of garbage. In a sense that was an early environmental project. But I never was a war photographer in any way. The Civil Rights movement was as far as I could go.
BL: You have mostly photographed in the US, except for a few commissions abroad. Local social issues or topics. Was it a deliberate choice?
BD: Well I did a book on England and Scotland, then there are the Welch miners, but even those are not so much about a country than about my attraction to a certain period of History in England.
I grew up during the second World War, and my Uncle who lived with us became a pilot. He was flying from England to Yugoslavia to drop bombs on oil fields, when he was shot down. He was rescued, and is living today. So that made us very close to the war. In out little town, the houses where someone had been killed had a little flag in the window, with a star. Sometimes there were two stars… I was probably twelve years old, and that left an impression on me, so I always had a warm spot for England and Scotland.
Then I always had an attraction to the Welch miners. Probably because of the photographs that I may have seen in photography school of Robert Frank’s miners.
Actually when I served and I was posted outside of Paris, my sergeant was from Wales and I asked him “where would you send your worst enemy?”, and he said “such small village in Wales!”, and I did! On a three day pass. I just barely made it there, I could be in the town for two hours and then I had to go back to the army camp. I don’t think I even took any pictures, I just stood there. Later I did take pictures in Wales, of Welch miners. And after that, in America, I photographed miners as well. There’s something about going into the bowls of the earth and it’s dark, and there’s only one way out…
BL: For that reason, you often go back to earlier stories. To see what the people have become, and sometimes to make another version of the same issue (“Central Park”). Tell me more about that.
BD: I think I grow out of a state of mind. The early central park photographs were right afterBrooklyn Gang, and I needed a rest. So walking through Central Park I began to feel very close to the place and the vegetation, which is very romantic, and very soft. Then later in the 90’s, I developed a different way of seeing Central Park than this kind romantic beauty. Then I related to people’s limbs, the roots of the trees, the images are more dramatic, and seen from a certain distance.
Basically when we had children we hated Central Park, it was very dangerous, and there would be hypodermic needles laying around. But when I photographed there, it was during a period of transition into the new park. Very well cared for, so that right now I wouldn’t photograph there, it’s too gentrified for me.
BL: Same story with East 100th Street, you’ve worked there for two years, and then returned 30 years later. You seem to keep working the same locations and the same topics again and again.
BD: That’s because they change, and I change.
BL: Nature starts to enter your imagery as early as the 60’s, in Central Park, in the NJ Meadows, then in Yosemite Park, but it is never a wild nature, always a nature that includes men, or which was built by men. Now in your latest nature projects that seems to shift.
BD: I took it on my own to photograph the nature of Paris. For instance a tree, three or four hundred years old, growing without anybody noticing it, next to the Eiffel Tower. That was important because I started getting abstract without any people. When I finished doing “Nature of Paris” a poet friend of mine by the name of C. K. Williams said to me that it was “a fierce reality”. In other words, they weren’t pretty pictures. Which highlights the double meaning of those images. A lot of it is sexually derived. You might think “oh god, horny bastard”. So the predator is still around… And that led to L.A..
Los Angeles is a desert but with water, where anything will grow. But people who live in L.A. don’t recognize it, they take it for granted. They’re really butting up against foothills of real wilderness but they pay it no attention.
I haven’t dug deep enough in this project yet, it is still a work in progress. I still don’t know what I’m doing. My first impulse was to photograph the back of the Hollywood sign, which everybody knows, but is very difficult to get to (I couldn’t get to it without a rope). I find great meaning in it, and the desert that is in front of it. There are no people at all in those photographs, I don’t want to see a human being!
The Hollywood sign is kind of vulgar, and now, more than a symbol, it is a brand. If I wanted to photograph a model there, they would charge me a tremendous amount of money. But I was there free, because I was working for the Los Angeles County Museum. They gave me letter saying that I’m working on a special project, a fine art project, and “could you please help poor little Bruce?”… And they fell for it, so I’m kind of an artist in residence there. They think there is going to be a show of those photographs. Well there might not be for another ten years…
BL: So after this first image of the Hollywood sign, what have you been looking for?
BD: I was asked to present my work at a photo happening sponsored by the Levi Strauss institute in London, and I found out that while I was talking they were transmitting those pictures on the internet. There were 16 000 hits! So I thought why don’t I use the internet to scout my photographs in Los Angeles? Put the word out for an incredible tree, a beautiful cactus, someone who keeps coyotes, an infinity swimming pool, etc… For instance there are fires in the foothills of L.A., well after the fire is out I want to be able to go in there where it’s all black. For that I have to make some sort of relationship with the fire department.
I have to figure out how to do research on the internet. I need to figure out what are the questions to ask. How to define what I’m looking for. I don’t even know…
BL: Why Los Angeles?
BD: I photographed Los Angeles in 64, and that was eastern snobbery. L.A. was a pit, a purgatory, it was soulless. It was about money, it was about Hollywood types, there was no aesthetic reality there, just a grid. And I photographed this, and so did Robert Frank, and so did a lot of other people. Esquire had sent me on assignment, but they didn’t understand what I was doing. The iconic, ironic, acidy pictures that I was making came out of my experience there.
Now, it’s a new L.A., it is full of Art, Museums, culture, sure there’s still Hollywood there, and a Rolls Royce convertible –someone’s toy- can pull up next to you at the light, but I don’t have anything to say about that, I think that’s self evident. What I want to say is: “while you are driving your Rolls Royce are you noticing that beautiful palm tree?”. Back to what people overlook.
I haven’t been able to find a palm tree fallen over. I think they might actually not fall over, but collapse. Maybe I’ll find that on the internet: “looking for a dying palm tree…”
BL: This man-nature relationship makes me think of Alec Soth’s “Broken Manual” where we find portraits of men who have fled society and hidden in the wilderness. Yet they never really renounce society. A bit like the Yosemite Park portraits where you end up finding all the elements of a living room spread around a clearing between the trees.
Like the three girls with the make up boxes! They bring themselves to the wilderness, but they don’t change, they don’t interact, maybe they’re not even aware. They know they are in a camp site, but they bring their TV.
One thing that has occurred to me is that I have to be careful not to get into Lewis Baltz, or some of the other West Coast landscape photographers. I think my photographs are quite different. It’s not that idea of “save the world”, it is more “appreciate it!”, or “see it for the first time”. Like I explore it myself, I don’t know anything about the wilderness, but I do know that if I move around I will see things.
Photography and time
BL: Tell me about your encounter with Cartier-Breson, and your application to Magnum.
BD: I met Cartier-Bresson in Paris. Years later I was on a bus on fifth avenue, and looking out the window I happened to see Cartier-Bresson on the sidewalk, so I got of the bus to say hello. He said “come to Magnum, it’s round the corner”. And I guess he proposed me for the organization at that time. I met him in 56, and I met him again after “Brooklyn Gang”, so probably in 59. I think I submitted my “Brooklyn Gang” pictures.
BL: How did you first become aware of his work?
BD: When I was in college at Rochester Institute, there were 146 students in the photography department, and two women! I became amoured with one of them. When I was courting her I met her at the women’s dorm, which had a signed that said “males must have both feet on the ground”. We sat on a couch and she brought down a book, and that was “The decisive moment”. I was seeing those pictures for the first time, and she said “I love this photographer, I love Cartier-Bresson!”. So I thought to myself that if I took pictures that looked like his she might fall in love with me too… So I went out and I got a little used Leica, and I mimicked his photographs as close as I could. Well it didn’t work, she ran off with the English professor! But I was left with Cartier-Bresson. And that left an indelible impression on me.
BL: And later you actually met him…
BD: When I was sent to Paris, I was in an international army camp, and I became friends with one French soldier. He invited me to his home in Montmartre, where his mother gave us a lunch, and after lunch I could see that old lady walking down Rue Lepic. Later I was introduced to her, which led to “The widow of Montmartre” series.
And that is the work I showed Cartier-Bresson when I met him. It took a couple of weeks, Magnum said “well, he is not here, bla bla, next week, bla bla…”. When I finally met him, he looked at the contact sheets, the prints as well, but primarily the contact sheets. By the way I donated those very contact sheets to the HCB Foundation in Paris. Vintage contact sheets. When he liked a picture he would tap on the contact so we have his DNA on there!
BL: How do you “fit in” with the newer generation of Magnum photographers?
BD: Oh, there are some extraordinary photographers at Magnum now. For instance there’s a Leonard Freed show right now at the London office, and I didn’t know his work that well, I knew a couple of the iconic images, but he’s a wonderful photographer, in a certain genre.
I don’t think of myself as a Magnum photographer, I think of myself as a photographer who has an agency which supports certain aspects of his work. For instance when there’s an exhibition, they make publicity, and try to sell the photographs. When I have a contract with a magazine, they make sure that I own the pictures, all that kind of stuff. Legal, service, and some kind of atmosphere too, because there is some really good work that keeps coming out of Magnum. And new work! It rejuvenates itself.
Magnum is really an amoeba that can divide itself.
BL: Some of those younger photographers are more subjective in their approach, and go in a fine arts direction. How do you feel about that evolution?
BD: It’s all photography.
Once I asked a student what kind of photography she did, and she said “I’m a fine art photographer”, and I said “that’s really interesting, because I see myself as just a fine photographer!”
Yet my work has now made a bridge to so called “fine art” world, with collectors and so on. That probably seriously began when I joined the Howard Greenberg Gallery. I was with another gallery before but that didn’t work out so well, but Howard really understands my work and has championed it, and has sold quite a bit of it.
Today that represents almost all of my income.
The other day I was thinking to myself “I hope I don’t have a job because I wouldn’t know how to go about it!”.
BL: When was the last time you had a commission?
BD: It was a movie star. It might have been Paul Newman, when he was alive! Then George Clooney, Brad Pitt, a bunch of them…
To be able to swim, you need to be where there is water. You have to be there, suggest things to the editors, have something publish to show, and I’ve given all that up. It may be that I’ll go back and do something commercially, but I’ve turned down a lot of jobs. Particularly if they had a commercial bend.
All I want to do now is take pictures, and take care of my archives.
BL: How do you feel about your archives going from one world –a commercial commission- to another –the art world-?
BD: When I was doing fashion photography in the early 60’s, Vogue collected those photographs, and they are really beautiful pictures. I didn’t give a shit about fashion, I was just glad that I could pay the rent with those pictures, and then go down south when I wanted to. I wasn’t interested in making a lot of money, I wasn’t interested in the life…
“Outside Inside” is the essence of my work, and aside from Bernstein and Monroe there aren’t a lot of portraits of famous people.
BL: The imagery of "Brooklyn Gang" (1959) inevitably suggests that of “Rebel without a cause” (1955). You’ve also had a career as a film maker. How do you think the cinema has influenced your photography?
BD: Towards the end of “East 100th Street”, where my images were very still, I wanted to illustrate the vibrant colors of that community, so I bought a movie camera. I friend of 100th street told me he had 16 000 feet of fresh film, that he would give me for very little. So I bought this stolen Kodak film, and I started filming people I knew. They thought it was still a still camera, so they would not move in front of the movie camera, which made for some interesting images.
Then I wrote a loose script which was the story of someone who lost an element of their clothing every time they did a good deed. And they would be naked by a bonfire by the end of the film. I started shooting. The opening scene was a young girl in a leotard, opening the door to the roof and started practicing martial arts. But I had to stop the movie because the girl’s father was an activist and wanted an all black crew. I said “what about me?”, and he said “you, ok, because you represent the money!”. So I refused to do that.
Then I went to the Jersey Meadows because I knew that family, and that became “Living of the land”. Then later I did another film based on Singer, where he confronts his own characters. Then that was it! I went back into my still photography. I didn’t have a very long stay in films, I just made three little films.
Of course I was going to movies ever since I was a little kid, but I can’t think of any particular film which influenced me tremendously. Certainly I was aware of Kubrick, Antonioni, Fellini, Kurosawa, all the main ones that I probably absorbed. But when I was making my stories I didn’t think about anybody else, because I was wrapped up in what I was trying to do with it.
What was important was that moment when I first saw an image coming out of chemicals. I was about 10 years old, and I was waiting to get into a basketball game, when a friend of mine came by and said “do you want to see developing in my dark room?” and I said “what’s that?”. I went with him to his basement, and I saw that first picture come out! With the red light it was all very spooky, and intimidating, yet I was very much attracted to it. So I ran home and asked my mom if I could empty out my grandmother’s jelly closet, and make a dark room out of it.
It was always about the passion of photographing, of making a “click”, then putting that little thing into something else and it became alive! That’s what drives me: the beauty of it all, the little click on my Leica. It’s very cosmic, because that’s exactly what happened: a flash, and then the cosmos came out of the water, out of the void. Then time was invented.
BL: “East 100th St” seems like it could bear the name “Outside Inside”. Both in terms of belonging, and in terms of imagery (you open with the street, and close with the street, with many interiors in between).
BD: That’s true about anything I would photograph. Even a tree. “Outside” means you’re not really connected. You may be there, but you are not connected yet, you need to find your way inside to understand. And perhaps you can’t fully understand.
On “100th Street”, some people would say “why did you photograph those bad things?”, when actually there’s a lot of dignity. Certainly this project has more layers of ideas and imagery than anything else I’ve ever done.
What many people miss is that the background is as important as the foreground. For instance that man standing on rubble: it not only dignifies him, it also shows where he came from.
BL: I’ve always been puzzled by the choice of the cover image, which happens to also be the closing image of the first edition. Why this one?
It’s a very religious community, and I felt that that child on that fire escape was a kind of crucifix. I’ve seen crucifixes in old churches in Italy, or France, and that child, in my mind, became this religious figure. That’s also why I printed her face dark.
Weeks before, I had photographed that same child, but from an elevation, the mother saw me do it and brought the children in, off the fire escape. So I went around and I knocked on the door, and I showed her my work. She said “ok, you can photograph my children out there on the fire escape, provided you also take a picture of them dressed up”, so I did. So she was comfortable at that time.
BL: In the new edition of 2002 the book changes quite a bit. More text, but more importantly: different sequence, different cropping sometimes, and different editing! Why all those differences?
BD: You see, I owed it to history.
The original printing was very very dark, and very contrasty. Printed on a German paper where you could do that. They finally took it of the market because it had Cadmium in it, and Cadmium is slightly radioactive. So the first edition of “East 100th Street” is radioactive…
Years later I decided to re edit, add pictures, maybe eliminate a couple others. I wanted it to have the same mood, but I didn’t want it to be so dark. If you look at certain pictures in the first edition, you can’t see the faces. Now the St Ann’s publication is very good, they actually hired a printing expert to be with me on press. Photographers often make the mistake of thinking it’s enough to say “oh, make it a little darker”, when that doesn’t mean anything to a printer. You need to be there and to know what to ask for.
I think the second edition is more beautiful than the original. Now everyone wants the original because it’s dark, which makes it “art”.
At the time I didn’t know anything about book printing, and I sent my prints to Rochester where the book was going to be printed, and it wasn’t very well printed. It looked like it was well printed, but it wasn’t.
BL: Most of your books are rare. Even when they are re printed. Is that a conscious choice?
BD: Well I’m not a very good businessman!
I’m working with Steidl now, and his distribution is not the distribution of a commercial publisher. All he cares about really is how beautiful the printing is. While he does have distribution, I don’t think he likes the distribution people, I don’t think he likes Barnes and Noble, he’d rather have his books in some little shops.
Then if the books went sold out so quickly it’s because he didn’t print enough copies, because I wasn’t famous enough! For instance for “Outside Inside” he chose to print 3 000 copies, 1500 went to the States, and 1500 went to Europe. And once it’s sold out, it’s the end. Now he tells me he’s reprinting it, but I haven’t seen it in the bookstores.
BL: But the second printing of “East 100th Street” I haven’t even seen once in a bookstore!
BD: Yes, I know! Well that’s a different story. This was published by St Ann’s who was really just a rich guy who wanted to get into publishing, but when he got there and started losing money on some of the books he just stopped publishing! And that’s tragic.
But sooner or later I think there will be another edition with Steidl… But what we are working on now will be “Subway”. I’m going out there on Saturday, and we start printing on Monday!
BL: Because of color, but also because of its violence your “Subway” series stands out. When usually you are driven by the development of a human relationship for a project, in this case it is impossible by nature.
BD: Well you can have a 30 seconds love affair! And have a hundred different such love affairs…
The secret of it was that everyone was fed up with the subway. It was dirty, non safe, people getting robbed, it was just a horrible mess, with a lot of graffiti all over everything. I was there with my cameras and people would ask “what are you doing?” and I would tell them I was making a book on the subway, and they would go “Oh, we need a book on the subway!”. That was one approach. Or I’d take a picture and say “I’m sorry but I needed to do that”, or I would just take it and leave! It was dynamic, every day was different, and every photo was different.
And I paid my dues, I got mugged once or twice, which was expected the way I was walking around with my camera…
It was about color. I started in black and white then I stopped at a certain point and moved into color because I found meaning in the graffiti, and the fact that surprisingly it wasn’t supposed to be a color subject! You know, everyone photographs the subway in black and white.
There was a challenge to find something beautiful in the context of something that is ugly, but there was beauty down there. There are photographs in there that are beautiful! For instance the snow scene with the man, which reminded me of a Werner Bishof Japanese snow photograph, a beautiful picture.
Now for Steidl I went back and I looked at every single box of slides – I think there are 300 boxes – and I found around ten pictures that should have been in the first book, but weren’t. Also the first edition, which was published by Aperture, was really done by a book packager who turned out to be crook -but that’s besides the point-, well the printing isn’t very good. Then for the second edition the printing is pretty good, but now we are going to try and make it better! With new images, pretty much the same layout, but you know, when you add something, you need to change the rest around. It’s a different deck of cards.
BL: Could you tell me more about the cover image, did you get into trouble for that shot?
BD: No. It’s a matter of context. That kid was probably 18-19 years old, came right of off the beach and he had so much sun on his body that it almost radiated. So I just asked him “do you mind? You really have a good tan!”. So I asked him, and I think I sent him a print, but of an image further back so he could see more of his figure.
Funny thing that happened: I had a show at the Museum of the City of New York, there were C-prints, and a guy came up to me and said “I’m the cover!”. And this guy was huge, and when I asked what he did he told me he was a bodybuilder. And he said “if you want, come by the gym and I’ll work with you!”.
BL: The other image I’d like to know more about is the photograph with this guy probing his gun under this other guy’s chin. What was going on there?
BD: At some point you come to an end where you can’t go any further, or you begin to see you own pictures. So after I was finished photographing New York magazine asked me if would join with a group of undercover police who dressed and acted in such a way to precipitate a robbery, and then catch the robber. So I rode with them, and was like a decoy. I had my cameras out, you know, and I also had a subway map, like I was a lost tourist. After about 7 days, I think, someone robbed the policeman dressed as a rabbi with a gold chain. Rabbis don’t wear gold chains, but crooks don’t know that, they know that a rabbi is not going to fight back… Then he ran towards me, and I raised my camera and I took one frame. Now Billy, the backup cop is the one with the gun on that photograph. He dressed up and had a boom box with his music on, so with him the robber felt secure, like “oh, I got a homeboy”.
So the guy holding the gun is actually a cop making an arrest. And the other guy had a lot of burglaries in his record.
BL: Your book “Outside Inside” feels like a retrospective on your own terms, with not institution leading the agenda. What triggered you to venture on this very long and tedious project?
BD: My children. When they looked at my pictures all over the place they said “you’re not leaving this, are you?”. So I thought I’d better clean up the mess, I’d better go through every contact sheet.
I’d say there are 500 books, each containing one hundred sheets of 35 images. So that’s a couple of million photographs that I went through. And I printed them myself in the dark room I have at home. I would edit for two or three days, then print for two or three days. I never edit and print on the same day. No outside input on my choice of images. Just me.
BL: Were you never worried that you might now select images for nostalgic or historical reasons rather than photographic reasons?
BD: As we mentioned before regarding the circus, at the time I focused on the dwarf, but I had also photographed the circus itself as time went by. And I knew which were the photos that affected me then, and I just went for the emotionality.
I had missed a few. For instance I have some Mexican pictures from Oaxaca, and there was one picture that I had missed. I don’t know how, but I missed it.
I wanted to show the passion, and the connection from body of work to body of work. And working with no institution I had complete control and freedom.
BL: In this book, you’ve compiled personal projects and commissions. Yet all the commissions were either editorial or portraits. Why did you include neither your early fashion work, or you commercial work?
BD: It would be too big a book!
Well perhaps at another time I will show my corporate work, in color. There are some really good pictures in there. But I’m not ready to do that yet.
I wouldn’t call it a “retrospective”, I would call it an “introspective”. I wanted to show how one thing leads to another that leads to another thing, like a kind of fractal understanding of things. There are connections from one story to the next, almost organic.
BL: The opening quote of “East 100th st” says “What you call a ghetto, I call home.” Looking through many of your projects it struck me that this quote could apply to many of them just changing the word “ghetto” into another one (“circus”, “coal mine”, “meadows”, “the west”, “yosemite park”, etc…). What does that say about your work?
BD: Well, that’s “Outside Inside”.
I don’t want to get too self-conscious, I was just exploring things.