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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More on Bruce Davidson's Civil Rights Movement images

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(Photos courtesy Jackson Fine Art)

In this week's issue I take a look at the images from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s that grace the High Museum, most notably in the Road to Freedom exhibition. As part of this, photographer Bruce Davidson is using Jackson Fine Art to show some of the images from his landmark Time of Change series that didn't make it into the High exhibition.

I had a chance to conduct an email interview with Davidson, some of which I used for the article. Here's the complete transcript …

Talk about how the Jackson Fine Art and High exhibits came about.

The High museum planned their show, and then the Jackson Fine art gallery wanted to show my work that wasn’t going to be shown at the High Museum. A broader view of this body of work from Time of Change and East 100th Street, which came just after.

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The point has been made about themes of your work including your subjects’ seeming search for meaning in life, particularly amid pretty rough living conditions. You can see a lot of that in the Brooklyn Gang, East 100th Street and of course the Time of Change series that we see here. What’s the challenge of getting the camera to work for you on this level?

I seem to be attracted to subjects in a state of change. I photographed the Brooklyn Gang before drugs came into the neighborhood and devastated lives. East 100th St. was in transition, the citizens committee was attempting to revive and rejuvenate the community and social services. And obviously in Time of Change, there a number of things that needed to be seen and observed.

I read in an article that you are known for your innovative use of the 4x5-inch view camera “to create portraits with depth and complexity … of the residents of what was termed in the late 1950s ‘the worst block in Spanish Harlem’” Can you expand on that use, and the strategy behind it?

For years photographers have come into neighborhoods like East 100th, taking photographs, and not returning with the photographs and not much changed. I feel that I needed to be eye to with my subject and not hide behind a camera’s viewfinder. I also gave prints to everyone. I wanted to see in depth, in detail and tonality which is possible with a large, old-fashioned 4x5-inch view camera. The camera itself created a sense of presence and the act of photography became dignified.

To that end, one of the things that fascinated me about many of the images I saw at Jackson is the facial expression of the subjects — most notably about where their gaze is aimed. In the MLK shots, his head and face are pointed in very distinct directions. In one, he’s looking down and seemingly trying to cover the craziness of a press conference above him, almost as if he’s ducking for cover. In the other image, King’s waiting to give a speech but his head is tilted back a bit as if reacting to something that’s being said. How conscious was this effort to capture people with a particular expression or looking in a particular direction? It seems to say a lot.

I do not come to my subjects with a hidden agenda. I try to be patient and observe that which is in front of me. Pictures of MLK were done without his knowledge. I didn’t attempt to know him or become of his cadre of photographers, reporters and others. I remained mostly invisible in these epic historical times.

How many of the shots “posed” in any way? Some of them are just incredible in their composition. For example, in the East 100th Street series I was struck by the two sets of teenage couples. The expressions of the black women reveal a kind of detachment, almost as if they didn’t want to be there.

I do not think of my photographs from East 100th as being posed. I think of my subjects as being poised, eye to eye relationship for the moment the photograph was made. I allow my subjects collaborate and show me themselves.

Talk a little bit about how shooting such squalid living conditions affected you. The shots in the rural South revealed such a depth of poverty, I wonder what impact it had on you. And what impact do you think your portraiture of your subjects might have had on them? Were they surprised about your interest in them?

I’m interested in portraying both the dignity and despair in that can serve and enlighten people to the plight of people. Very often I return after many years to se changes and to know my subjects a little better than those fragile moments in turbulent times.

One of my favorites is sort of a before/after with the fire hose in Birmingham. In one image the water falls short of its target, a black woman in a white dress. In the next image, she’s deluged by the water from the hose. What was the general time frame between those images? Were there more that captured that moment? Was she hurt?

The confrontation and the power hoses turning on people in 1963 in Birmingham, I needed to react very quickly to what was happening and at the same time not to get wet myself. Fortunately I have been a track star in high school and could run fast like the wind for short periods of time.

Talk about the power of the image to change people’s perceptions. John Lewis is quoted in the gallery about the impact of these images in telling people what was really going on at the time. How much do you think photography can impact on social change, particularly this form of photojournalism?

I think photography can be powerful and help facilitate social change. But it is not a panacea but it does provide us with observation and information and helps us feel and understand another person’s life. I don’t see my photographs as photojournalism, they are humanistic and they are carried in a personal way I see.

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