New York

Bruce Davidson

Art World goes to Europe. Art world goes to so-called ethnic cultures. They’re both pseudo-events and encourage separations. Rather than embracing everything together it is still the view of the “other.” Who is the “other” in a subway? It’s obviously the photographer, obviously Bruce Davidson. I find it curious that a transportation system is used as a container for “types”. When you have journalist tendencies but you’re also a self-appointed arty “humanitarian,” you become a paparazzo of the underdog, invading the private sector, rather than documenting the homegrown performances of the theatricalized self (Diane Arbus) or even giving classification projects a symbolic regalia by imaging subjects at their essential identity (the sociological enterprise of August Sander).

The subways are used as a 75¢-a-drop right to a cowardly, misplaced voyeurism. A token will not get the portrait of Everyman; anybody who really uses one is part of or familiar with the almost institutionalized masking system of behavior—“the subway face.” Riders have to protect their privacy with either an inward falling in beyond their perimeters or a glancing right through. It’s seemingly a blank image but it’s really a sophisticated code all riders know, not to be mistaken with frailty or deprivation which is what Davidson does. Davidson in Camera Arts, November 1982, on one of his physiognomically lethargic subjects, the “bag lady”:

I rode with the woman to the end of the line at South Ferry, remembering an image in a book of war atrocities called The Yellow Star, of a woman, young and beautiful, who had been stripped naked on a street during a Nazi manhunt in Poland. We got off the train together, and I asked her to sign a release. As she signed it, she spoke to me in fragmented sentences I didn’t understand, beneath the noise of the screeching train. She had a stage voice, and I asked if she had been an actress. There was a reply that again I couldn’t understand. I asked if she needed help in someway and handed her a few dollars. A conductor came over. She turned to him and said. “Sir, this man has just raped me.” Slowly she walked to an empty bench, curled up, and went to sleep.

Ideally if you photograph people on the subway what you’re going to get is not “white boy,” “Puerto Rican man,” “derelict.” It’s hilarious that these subways are revealed as overwhelmingly full of derelicts because that means that they are equated by Davidson with poverty, which is the negation of millions of New Yorkers who use these technological arteries—these veins and spines of the city—who accept the urban structure as part of modern living. If the average passenger is so matter of factly able to use the machine as a borough-trope why does Davidson romance the retro idea that it’s a wide-open metaphor for urban “victims” and general alienation? When Weegee goes out to see the New York characters there’s always something happening and he gives a complete human photography with captional dignity. There’s more situational realm to Weegee’s arrested cop-killer than to any of these “found” people as shot by Davidson, especially when he overshowcases, submitting the truth of a young Latin couple in love to its cultural cliché. After John Ahearn’s lifecast of the exact same posture and emotive content it is no longer possible for any artist to irresponsibly fiddle and exploit such subject matter. Ahearn’s is an authentic reality. He wants to be with his subjects. Even Leni Riefenstahl bothered to make the trip to Africa, repenting, suffering the hardships.

This is ambitious color-conscious photography that submits skin to the light of the underground (artificial). The actual colors in the photographs are arranged like overly highlit “clues” that spotlight the subjects as isolated representatives of their racial color. This is not the beauty of a racial rainbow that we call New York; it is prismatic distillation. In the name of nothing less than three major photographic traditions—portraiture, interior, and landscape—Davidson habitually layers foreground, middle, and background. As portraits the people are buried in the shimmer of their impersonal facade being propagated by Davidson as their true image. The shots of the landscape and cityscape are tight-framed, window-cropped clichés of aerial perspectives, extreme-vanishing-point street vistas, sunsets, cemeteries, etc. Misappropriating graffiti, using its currency like hip wallpaper, representing it as the calligraphic décor of the illiterate, he nestles the interiors in the context of these lyrical exterior shots as the Mean Streets number. Right then and there he falls apart again, because the interiors are really exteriors—streets on wheels. If Davidson could just deal with the incredible fact that he actually got three systems of exteriors, and not use one as saccharine or perfume to mellow the other, he would get a city pulse with a state of mind more on the beat than even Robert Frank’s.

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