Renowned photographer Bruce Davidson revisits the humour, stoicism and complexities of 1960s Britain
In a new exhibition at Huxley-Parlour gallery, the work of renowned documentary photographer Bruce Davidson has been given a new lease of life.
- Ayla Angelos
- 27 January 2020
“If you leave him alone, you’ll have a wonderful one-off series of pictures,” was the suggestion put forward to Queen magazine by Cornell Capa, a fellow Magnum Photos member of American photographer Bruce Davidson. Cornell had put Bruce in touch with the publication’s staff, a year later after they had published parts of his Brooklyn Gang series – a collection of photographs shot during the summer of 1959 that followed a teenage gang in Brooklyn, soon to be emblematic of post-war youth culture in New York. As for the prior assignment, the suggestion was agreed and Bruce was commissioned to travel abroad to the British Isles in the 1960s and Wales in 1965 – where his photographs (some of which have been rarely seen) are now on show in his first solo UK exhibition in almost ten years at Huxley-Parlour, titled Bruce Davidson: A United Kingdom.
Bruce, born in Illinois in 1933, studied at Rochester Institute of Technology and later pursued his studies at Yale University. Becoming a member of Magnum Photos in 1958, he has become photographically renowned for documenting subcultures and presenting photo essays on those that are on the margins of society.
When asked what it was that specifically drew him towards photographing the United Kingdom, Bruce responds: “I had already seen the work of Bill Brandt and also photographs taken by Robert Frank and I was drawn to the grey, smoky and sometimes gritty, atmospheric quality in those images.” It was the years of austerity and post-war traumas that had left its mark on various parts of the UK and Scotland which cinematically drew Bruce in. Not only this, but these affected areas ended up being his landing point for a two-month period over the autumn. Bruce was given the utmost freedom to capture his own portrait of the UK, during which he began his tour in London before visiting the South Coast – later heading north to Scotland. His discovery was that it was a country that seemed untouched since the 1930s.
The result was a series of pictures published on 12 April 1961 in Queen, named under the title of Seeing Ourselves as an American Sees Us: A picture Essay on Britain. Now having somewhat of a revival, these photos are giving a resurgence to a bygone era of hardship and post-war life, as well as equally serving as a reminder of the endurance and humour found within British tradition.
Bruce focuses his lens on the soft embrace of couples laying on the beach in Brighton (1960), a couple kissing on the street in England (1960) and on teenagers restfully posing by the jukebox in Hastings (1960). Formal dress is paramount, as is the notion of change that runs through each image. “The girl with the kitten is one of my favourite portraits,” Bruce tells It’s Nice That. “They were just a group of youths on the street carrying their bedrolls. I only had a few minutes with them as they were heading towards a concert hall. England at that time was changing and the emerging youth culture there struck a note in me as I had spent time in 1958 photographing young people in Brooklyn Gang.”
Most prominent is his representation of two juxtaposing environments: the city and the countryside. People had suggested that Bruce were to visit places like Hastings, Blackpool and Brighton – “I would just walk around”. At times, there was a more formal approach, where he needed permission from the Duke of Argyll in Scotland. This could have been due to the fact that Bruce was an outsider, a visitor to the land with a new perspective. “When I photographed Wales in 1965, it was more organised and I had an escort,” he continues. “I went back to Cwmbran and was introduced to a group of miners through the Welsh poet Horace Jones. As for any tools used, it was just me and two Leicas.”
Bruce Davidson: A United Kingdom at Huxley-Parlour Gallery, London, from 17 January – 14 March 2020.
Girl holding kitten, London 1960 © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery / Huxley Parlour Gallery
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.