Bruce Davidson

I’ve been playing around with an idea of doing assignment 2 in or around train stations so started to research a few photographers who have made work in similar settings. Whether I will do the whole assignment at a train station still remains to be seen.

The first photographer I came across was Bruce Davidson. Davidson became hooked on photography at the tender age of ten. During his army service he was lucky enough to meet Henri Cartier-Bresson who invited him to join Magnum. Now in his eighties, Davidson is still very much an active photographer.

In an interview with Charlotte Cotton for Aperture magazine (Vol 220, March 2015 edition) he explains that he was deeply influenced by W. Eugene Smith, Cartier-Bresson and Irving Penn. Interestingly he does not start a body of work with any preconceived ideas.

I think I’m a less intellectual photographer. I go in and it’s a blank canvas that I have to work with. I start without preconceiving – at least that is true of the work I have made that counts.

Aperture 220 p. 100

USA. New York City. 1980 Subway by Bruce Davidson
USA. New York City. 1980 Subway by Bruce Davidson

Davidson’s Subway series can be viewed on Magnum’s website. His images are gritty, conveying the dubious surroundings commuters find themselves in daily. Graffiti adorns almost every surface of the majority of his images, creating barriers and jails that seem to imprison the commuters in these moving carts. The image above reminds me of a movie I saw recently (unfortunately I can’t remember the name, or the plot as I fell asleep) of a group of people, the last on earth I believe, who were doomed to travel on a train through a never-ending ice age, with no hope of ever alighting from it. The scribblings on the window encircling the faces seem to reinforce the compressed environment inside the carriage. The single track of light above the platform replicating the emergency floor exit lights in an aircraft, accentuates the feeling of doom. The main subject, the man caught in the flashlight, stands still with a rather surprised expression on his face. With his dark coat he acts as a boundary, rather like the River Styx, between the lightened foreground with the trapped, compressed faces peering through the window and the deep, ominous tunnel and dark figures that lie behind him.

USA. New York City. 1980. Subway by Bruce Davidson
USA. New York City. 1980. Subway by Bruce Davidson

The second image features a rabbi (I think) emerging from the depths of a dark stairwell. Black graffiti makes its mark on the white subway tiles. The writing acts as an arrow, drawing the viewer’s attention to the emerging rabbi, who is clothed in black. His white beard echoes the colour of the subway tiles. The mood in this image is not as dark as the one above, probably because the subject is moving upwards into the light, escaping as it were from the depths. Even so, it is still a rather tense and serious image. This element of darkness and confinement seems to run through Davidson’s subway images as a common theme. An extract from the interview with Charlotte Cotton provides some interesting insight into this project.

Davidson: I always start with a blank canvas. Every body of work comes out of a different state of mind, and I really have to be in a state of mind to be drawn into this black hole of reality.

Cotton: How would you describe that state of mind?

Davidson: you have to feel some pressure, something that you need to find, something that’s calling you. In the subway, it was the movement and the color of movement. The subway became a studio for me. It was a place where I’d go every day just to discover whatever it is that I’m allowed to see.

Aperture 220 p. 105

Reference List

Cotton, C (2015). Bruce Davidson [online] Aperture Magazine Vol 220, March 2015. Available at:!/94 [Accessed 3 November, 2016]

Davidson, B (2003). Subway [online] Magnum Photos. Available at: [Accessed 3 November, 2016]



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