Bruce Davidson has been shooting pictures since he first picked up a camera at the age of 10, and now, at 72, he is one of the world’s most renowned photographers. A protégé of the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson, he is a member of Magnum Photos, the distinguished photographic cooperative. His work has been the subject of exhibitions in major museums around the world, and eight books of his photography have been published.
Davidson’s photographs have also appeared in many magazines, including Life, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Vogue and New York. But, he says, “I’ve never seen myself as a magazine photographer. Nor do I see myself as a fine-arts photographer or a documentary photographer or a socially-concerned photographer,” although he has been all of those. “I see myself as a photographer. Period.”
Like most successful photographers, he knows how to make his subjects relax. He’s also a good talker. We got him talking about his magazine assignments and how he got his pictures.
“One of my assignments was for an issue on photography in America for Esquire. It was after 9/11. I couldn’t come to grips with all that. I didn’t think I could go out to the Grand Canyon and photograph a sunset and all of that. So, I photographed Katz’s [delicatessen] and I wrote a paragraph about peace and pastrami—how when you eat pastrami everyone feels peaceful.”
“Christopher Walken asked me to photograph him in Connecticut for some society magazine. His wife is a friend of our neighbor. So when we drove up to Connecticut, his wife was there to greet us. I asked her some of the things he likes to do. ‘He likes to bake—his father was a baker—he likes to dance, he likes to paint. Oh, we love cats, we have a beautiful black cat.’ So I was thinking I’ll have him dancing, playing with the cat. He comes down grumpy and I tell him, ‘I understand you did some of those paintings.’
‘Yeah, they’re my paintings, but we’re not going to take any pictures of them.’ ‘Well, I understand you like to dance.’ ‘Oh no, I couldn’t do that.’ ‘You bake?’ ‘No baking.’ ‘The cat?’ ‘He can be in the picture, but I’m not holding him.’ So I was talking to him all the time. I was nervous with this guy. I couldn’t bother with the lights. I didn’t want him to become demonic, because that’s what he plays. I wanted him to dance, hold the cat—humanize the guy. This light came through his eyes and made him look really crazy. And they ran that and told me I won a prize for the picture.”
“An Esquire assignment was to photograph Michael Douglas. The mandate the magazine gave me was, ‘We want something that’s personal.’ So Douglas’ PR guy said, ‘Michael loves to play golf. His apartment is across the street from a very exclusive golf club. Just talk to the manager and maybe we can arrange something there.’ I said to myself, I hate golf. Nothing could be more boring. But I went there anyway and the manager said he never allowed people on the premises to take photographs of their clients. So I went to Douglas’ apartment with my assistant and I had a copy of my book “BDP” [“Bruce Davidson: Portraits”]. I went upstairs to drop it off, and the next morning I get a call: ‘Michael Douglas likes your work and wants you to come photograph him and the baby.’ ”
“I did Al Pacino for Newsweek. The editor called me and said, ‘Oh, I found this wonderful background. It’s the Explorers Club.’ I went over and it was full of stuffed animals. I can’t photograph Pacino in this context. What’s he going to stand next to, a polar bear? He would never do anything like that. I knew that the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park had a kind of formal environment, which I wasn’t too crazy about, but I was stuck. So I photographed him there. I thought it sort of looked like the Godfather’s house. I didn’t really want to do that with him, but I did. It was perfectly fine, and the pictures ran and won an award.”
“When I did East 100th Street [a 1970 study of one block in East Harlem], I used a huge camera because I needed the presence of the camera, the size and the slowness of it, to give a sense of an eye-to-eye relationship with my subject. This wasn’t just a candid picture—snap it and run and never come back again. This was a relationship that was being built through the act of photography. And it is probably one of my best bodies of work. I still only shoot film. I’m still in the dinosaur age. I would only use digital to retouch and get rid of scratches, but I wouldn’t use photo manipulation to change the truth of the time when I took the picture, the truth as I saw it.”