Documenting Humanity

A master of the social documentary image, Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson (b. 1933) is best known for chronicling the civil rights movement in the United States throughout the turbulent 1960s, as well as the lives of poverty-stricken African Americans and young gang members in New York. Through an unswerving focus on individual lives, he creates a sense of the common dignity of human beings throughout monumental shifts in history.

The Rotterdam exhibition includes more than 200 of his photographs, including work from the famous series Brooklyn Gang, East 100th Street and Time of Change: Civil Rights Movement. Born in Illinois, Davidson developed a passion for photography early and pursued the subject at university before being drafted into the US Army. He was quickly assigned to a photographic role and, whilst he was stationed in Paris, first encountered Henri Cartier-Bresson, who would later become a colleague at the Magnum agency. An early major work saw the then 25-year-old photographer embed himself with a teenage street gang, the Jokers, and their violent life to produce Brooklyn Gang in 1959 – one of the first in-depth records of post-war rebellious youth culture. “My way of working,” he later said, “is to enter an unknown world, explore it over a period of time, and learn from it.” The Dwarf, undertaken around the same time, saw him adopt the same methodology to portray the world of a travelling circus.

From 1961 to 1965, Davidson produced one of his most famous bodies of work as he chronicled the events of the Civil Rights Movement, in both the North and the South. Placing himself in the centre of sometimes dangerous confrontations to get close to his subjects and share their experiences, he took part in marches and demonstrations from the Freedom Rides to the Black Panthers, including the March on Washington in 1963, and photographed Dr Martin Luther King. He later said that his first trip to the South opened his eyes to oppression which as a white photographer he had not previously understood. To support the project, Davidson was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962.

His next project – published in 1970 as East 100th Street – a two-year documentation of a poverty-stricken block in East Harlem which was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art – is perhaps his most famous. He would revisit the area in 1998 to document its transformation over the intervening decades. Davidson continued to explore new angles on New York with works like the colour series Subway, which captured the lively underworld of the city’s transport system during the 1970s and influenced many contemporaries. The Rotterdam exhibition has been made possible by a collaboration between the Magnum Photos agency, the Fundación MAPFRE in Madrid and the Centro Italiano per la Fotografia in Turin, with the support of the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Bruce Davidson runs at the Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam. 16 September – 7 January. For more information:

1.Brooklyn Gang, USA, New York City, 1959. © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos.