This week is a big one for photography in London, with the opening yesterday of the World Photography Festival at Somerset House, the announcement last night of the winner of the 2011 Deutsche Börse Prize for Photography at The Photographer’s Gallery (separate blog post on this to follow), and the Sony World Photography Awards presentation in Leicester Square later tonight. Oh, and there’s some wedding happening on Friday, for which 8,000 news crews are in town. Luckily, I’ve got a few days off, and so have got time to blog about some, if not all of them..
At the SWPA ceremony this evening, the renowned American photographer, Bruce Davidson, will be presented with a special award for his Outstanding Contribution to Photography. As part of the preamble to this, he gave a talk last night about his life and work in conversation with Tate’s Curator of Photography, Simon Baker, to coincide with a retrospective exhibition that forms the centrepiece of the World Photography Festival. The event was an entertaining, if slightly jumbled, ramble through a selection of Davidson’s photographs taken over the past 60-odd years.
At 77, the diminutive Davidson is still clearly as passionate as ever about his photography, even if (by his own admission) his memory is starting to occasionally fail him. He recounted how he had recently forgotten the name of one of his earliest (and long since deceased) subjects – an elderly woman in Arizona – but then heard recently about some friends who were visiting the area where he’d taken the photos in 1955 and asked them to visit the cemetery to look for her grave; sure enough, they found her name (though he couldn’t remember it again off-hand).
I must admit that I’ve never been hugely familiar with Davidson’s work – despite having studied closely the work of many of his contemporary ‘street photographers’ such as Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand. I think that this may have been because in my mind he was always a ‘news’ photographer, rather than a ‘street’ photographer. I mainly knew of his photographs of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. So looking at the accompanying exhibition of his work was something of a revelation. His series of images about New York’s ‘Brooklyn Gang’ and ‘East 100th Street’ were completely new to me, as was his colour ‘Subway’ series, as well some of both his earliest and latest work.
The East 100th Street photographs are particularly astonishing, as Davidson revealed that they had been taken with a large-format Linhof view camera – yet they look exactly like they’ve been taken with his trusty 35mm Leica. They have a casual, snapshot-like feel about them that I would have thought very difficult to achieve with a heavy, cumbersome, tripod mounted view camera like the Linhof. He says that he used this as he ‘felt an eye-to-eye relationship was important’, and that the larger-format was necessary to win the confidence of the East 100th Street community. Strangley, they also reminded me in a way of Thomas Annan’s much earlier social-documentary photographs of the tenements of Glasgow in the late 1890’s – very much in the era of the view camera.
Davidson has switched his attention in the last few years from street to landscape – and to the west coast of America and the edge of the Los Angeles sprawl – the “places where nature meets cement” as he puts it. He’s also got his old Linhof back out, although again, there are traces of the Leica about the resulting images – the occasional wonky horizon, the odd unconventional viewpoint. There are echoes of the work of some of his contemporaries such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Lee Friedlander here too, all of whom have explored the landscape of that part of the world in different ways.
Davidson joked last night that he couldn’t view the portfolio of an audience member, as he was far too busy: “I reckon I’ve got another 30 years worth of work in me yet!”. He’s already been a member of Magnum for over 50 years, and has won many awards in the past, so tonight’s accolade comes as no surprise and thoroughly deserved. But I suspect he may have been only slightly joking; long may he continue.
The World Photography Festival, organised by the World Photography Organisation, runs at Somerset House in London for the rest of this week, closing on Sunday 1st May. There are events and talks every day, tickets start at £14 – though if you tweet about it using the hashtag #PHOTOfest, you could win some. For more information, see: http://www.worldphoto.org/festivals-events/wpo-events/london/ or follow @WorldPhotoOrg on Twitter.
The Bruce Davidson show and an exhibition of work by the winners of the 2011 Sony World Photography Awards run at Somerset House until 22 May.