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Summer 2014

Documentary Art

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Arthur Lubow

Outside Inside
by Bruce Davidson.
Steidl, 2010,
$195.00 (three-volume cloth set).

Black and White
by Bruce Davidson.
Steidl, 2012,
$345.00 (five-volume cloth set).

What makes a documentary photograph also a work of art? When does its news remain fresh, even after the daily paper or monthly magazine that printed it has faded? Bruce Davidson is a documentary photographer with a sixty-year track record, the most distinguished survivor of a time before photography was sold profitably in art galleries or studied widely in universities. It was only in the 1970s that the idea of “art photography” was recognized as being not a contradiction in terms; before then, someone wanting to earn a living with a camera relied on advertising agencies or periodicals. Many pictures that later entered museums began their lives in fashion and news-feature magazines.

Walker Evans once said that his photographs were not documentary pictures but “documentary style.” He explained: “An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, although it certainly can adopt that style.” As one looks through the wealth of Davidson’s body of work, this distinction is helpful to keep in mind.

A photograph of a shattered car in an empty field is a ghastly, violent image. The driver’s window is blown out, the seat is blood-soaked, the doors hang open like broken arms. But to comprehend the horror of this picture, you need to know things that you can learn only from a caption. This was the car that Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer civil rights worker from Detroit, was driving in Alabama when she was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1965. It is, as Evans would have it, a literal document.

Compare that to another Davidson photograph, taken six years earlier. A pretty girl with a full mane of sun-streaked blonde hair is primping in the mirror of a cigarette machine. A handsome boy alongside her is carefully rolling up a sleeve of his T-shirt. They have placed their drinks on top of the machine: a can of beer for him, a bottle of soda pop for her. In the background, other young people are heading for the lockers. The photograph was shot in Coney Island, one of a series on a Brooklyn gang called the Jokers, whom Davidson followed for almost a year in 1959. But any facts about the Jokers are extraneous to one’s appreciation of this photograph, which is all about the narcissistic eroticism of youth. The graceful crook of the feminine elbow in counterpoint to the taut extension of the boy’s arm, the tarnished reflective surface that reveals the girl’s fleeting beauty, the self-involvement and the sexual heat—these are specific to this scene, and general enough for a viewer to understand. It is documentary style.

The Joker series marked a breakthrough in Davidson’s career. While he was taking the pictures, he saw Robert Frank’s The Americans, a book that changed documentary photography by demonstrating how a strong sensibility could imprint and inflect a series of pictures. “It was hard for me to endure those bitter, beautiful photographs, for I had still within me the dream of hope and sympathy…,” Davidson later wrote. For Esquire, which printed some of the Joker sequence, he pushed the contrasts to make the pictures grainy and sketchy, so that they superficially resembled the work of Frank and his contemporary, William Klein. Republished in two sumptuous compendiums of Davidson’s photographs, the gradations this time around are softer grays. The tonal range is truer to the mood, which is kinder than the harsh commentary of Frank or the raucous humor of Klein.

The danger of kindness is that it can melt into sentimentality. In some of Davidson’s early work, he slips into clichés: an elderly Parisian widow lowers herself onto a park bench near a pair of lovers, a forlorn dwarf dines alone in a convivial restaurant. Esquire published some of the pictures of the widow and the dwarf, both of whom Davidson characteristically befriended. In selecting the photographs of the dwarf, whose name was Jimmy Armstrong, the Esquire editors astutely used only those of him in circus clown make-up. The best known of the sequence shows Armstrong holding a bouquet of flowers and smoking a cigarette, wearing his greasepaint and bowler hat, with a desolate, empty fairground behind him. While the pictures that chronicle Armstrong on his everyday rounds at the diner or a bank teller’s window might have come from a Life photo essay (and Davidson was pitching his work to Life at the time), the portrait with flowers and cigarette is mysterious and haunting. It is not telling you, as Life so often did, something that you already know. Like a scene from a Beckett play, it contains precisely observed, realistic details within a stylized whole.

Davidson’s evident empathy allowed him access to people and places where his presence would ordinarily arouse suspicion. The big story in America in the mid-Sixties was the civil rights movement, and Davidson covered it with commitment and courage. In his photographs, he conveys the corrosive effects of institutionalized racism: an African-American man, his body tight with rage, holding the hand of his sweet, trusting little son; a big-eyed, middle-aged black woman obsequiously addressing a white lady, whose face is unseen in the picture but whose elegantly condescending back says all; and two women, one black and one white, seated uncomfortably side by side at a luncheonette counter. Along with the victims (both black and white) of racism, he depicts the idealism of those protesting. In one photograph, a young black demonstrator is being dragged off by his heels as light falls on his calm face, the policemen visible only as shields and arms. In another, a young African-American Freedom Rider is sitting on the ground, surrounded by a group of jeering white youths, who are literally and figuratively looking down on him. The black protestor and several of his tormentors are wearing the same collegiate uniform—a button-down, light-colored Oxford shirt and dark trousers.

The similarity of clothing worn by the warriors on both sides of the racial divide raises provocative questions. The best photographs do. Whereas (to pick up Evans’s distinction) a documentary photograph can be introduced as evidence, a good documentary-style photograph will raise more doubts than it resolves. In Davidson’s most ambitious project, an exploration of a run-down block of East 100th Street in New York, he took photographs with a cumbersome large-format view camera for two years. A community organizer carried the photographs to city agencies, using them much as Jacob Riis’s pictures had been marshaled to reform the turn-of-the-century tenements in New York. Many of Davidson’s photographs indeed document the deplorable living conditions that the residents endured. But for me, the ones that live on do less—and more. One that stays in my mind shows a middle-aged black man with his arm around a younger man, who is athletic-looking and bare-chested. They are in a kitchen, and between their heads is a collection of basketball trophies, which stand on top of—is it a refrigerator? I think so. And they must be father and son. What is indelible and untranslatable into words is the expression of weariness, mistrust, hostility, and resignation with which they face the camera. Young and old, their world is bounded by these shabby walls. The trophies, with upward arms, are a muted mockery of unattainable dreams.

If a photograph can be reduced to a sentence, its interest is fleeting. When the point is sharp and clear, the afterlife is short. In some pictures, Davidson drives home his intention like a hammer on a nail. A black woman demonstrator is escorted away by two policemen, in front of a movie marquee that reads, “Suspense! Excitement! Susan Hayward in ‘Back Street’ and ‘Damn the Defiant.’” A young man on the subway, apparently in a drug-induced lethargy, sits beneath a poster: “You’ve got to be fast to make it in New York.” This device of juxtaposing signs and people with ironic intent goes back to the Depression-era documentary photographers (who would, for instance, depict a line for food handouts in front of a roadside billboard that proclaims, “There’s No Way Like the American Way”). It’s a didactic style in which the aphorism needn’t be spelled out in words. On East 100th Street, Davidson photographed a child behind a meshed window, alongside a caged bird, and a boy on a filthy mattress in an alley, almost indistinguishable from piles of strewn garbage. These are valuable as documents. But when he portrays a tiny infant with two figurines, all resting on a couch, or a young man with close-set eyes, holding a pet pigeon, he leaves enough mental space around the image for you to wonder. Like any work of art, a great photograph is suggestive but not dispositive. Its power resides in its ambiguity.

Arthur Lubow is writing a biography of Diane Arbus. He is just finishing his term as a 2013–14 fellow at the New York Public Library's Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center.

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