Bruce Davidson (born September 5, 1933 in Oak Park, Illinois) is an American photographer. He has been a member of Magnum agency since 1958. His photographs, notably those taken in Harlem, New York City, have been widely exhibited and published in a number of books.
Bruce Davidson was born to a single mother, who worked in a factory. At age 10, his mother built him a dark room in their basement and Davidson began taking photographs; as he was given the freedom to wander the streets of Oak Park alone. Soon after, he approached a local photographer who taught him the technical nuances of photography, in addition to lighting and printing skills. In his mid-teens, Davidson began to ride Chicago’s elevated train system into the city, exploring neighborhoods and the Chicago Loop, observing wide varieties of people, and most importantly developing skills and interests that would be seen in his later photographic works.
At 16, Davidson won his first major photography award, the Kodak National High School snapshot contest, with a picture of an owl at a nature preserve. After he graduated from high school, Davidson attended the Rochester Institute of Technology and Yale University, where one of his teachers was artist Josef Albers. Davidson showed Albers a box of prints of alcoholics on Skid Row; Albers told him to throw out his "sentimental" work and join his class in drawing and color. For his college thesis, Davidson created a photo essay that was published in Life in 1955, documenting the emotions of football players behind the scenes of the game.
After his military service, in 1957, Bruce Davidson worked briefly as a freelance photographer, before joining Magnum the following year. During the following few years, he photographed extensively, most notably producing Brooklyn Gang and The Dwarf. From 1961 to 1965, Davidson produced one of his most famous bodies of work as he chronicled the events and effects of the Civil Rights Movement around the country, in both the North and the South. In support of his project, Davidson received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962, and his finished project was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Upon the completion of his documentation of the Civil Rights Movement, Davidson received the first ever photography grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Davidson’s next project, East 100th Street, is perhaps his most famous. Considered a modern classic, East 100th Street was a two-year documentation of an infamous block in East Harlem. This project was also displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. Davidson followed this with Subway, a classic portrayal of the New York subway system, in the late 1970s. Using color to convey mood, Davidson documented a gritty and lively urban underworld. Over a decade later, in the early 1990s, Davidson completed a four-year exploration of Central Park, showing it as a beautiful and grand homage to New York City.
In 1998, Davidson returned to East 100th Street to document the revitalization, renewal and changes that occurred in the 30 years since he last documented it. For this visit, he presented a community slide show and received an Open Society Institute Individual Fellowship Award.
In addition to his best known publications, many of Davidson’s lesser known works have appeared around the world and in many museums. In 2008, a book has appeared of Davidson’s portraits of people, such as John Cage, Marilyn Monroe, Leonard Bernstein, Kiki Smith, Fannie Lou Hamer, Andy Warhol and Jack Kerouac.
Davidson continues to work as an editorial photographer. His photographs appear around the world and in many museums. Also, Davidson has directed two award-winning short films, a documentary titled Living off the Land and a more surreal tale titled Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard.
He lives in New York City with his wife, Emily.
An image from his Brooklyn Gang series was used as the cover for Bob Dylan's 2009 album Together Through Life.
He is awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award at the 2011 Sony World Photography Awards
Following college, Davidson was drafted into the US Army, where he served in the Signal Corps at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, attached to the post's photo pool. Initially, he was given routine photo assignments. Undaunted, Davidson created out of seemingly mundane material unique photo studies. An editor of the post's newspaper, recognizing his unique talents, asked that he be permanently assigned to the post newspaper. There, given a certain degree of autonomy, he was allowed to further hone his talents. Later, stationed in Paris, he met Henri Cartier-Bresson, a later colleague with the Magnum photo agency, sharing his portfolio and receiving advice from Cartier-Bresson. While in France, Davidson produced a photo essay on the Widow of Montmartre, an old Parisian woman.