Davidson's 'East 100th Street' Brings Harlem To The MFA
Published: Monday, February 4, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 4, 2013 00:02
Until Sept. 8, the large white-walled, wooden-floored Gallery 335 is dedicated to the Museum of Fine Arts procurement of 43 original Bruce Davidson prints. His telling black-and-white photography was last showcased at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, titled “East 100th Street.” In this exhibit, Davidson captures the uniqueness and humanity of struggling children, parents, lovers, and friends in 1960s East Harlem, and is visibly trusted as a local figure and shadow in East Harlem society.
Each print narrowly measures up to the typical five-by-eight photograph, but Davidson’s many strengths manage to show through clearly despite the small size. As one witnesses the exhibit, one immediately recognizes that the connection he has with each subject through his lens is clear in every honest grin, squint, and sneer. Davidson successfully captures personal moments in dozens of Harlem city dwellers’ lives as they simply lie in bed with their lovers or possibly endure the summer heat flying kites atop an overcrowded apartment building. His photographs speak through object choice and placement, which stress the importance of individualism in such a historical period. While viewing this showcase, it is soon apparent that Davidson’s observational talents expose the resident’s expressive surroundings while flaunting his own awareness of light and, in turn, enhancing each individual’s emotion during such a dangerous decade.
My eyes promptly stop upon a simple image that awakens my sympathy as I understand the story it articulates. I first notice a single light bulb and hanging string-switch lying at the center of the scene. It is the only light source in the windowless room, and attaches to a bare, graying-white ceiling. Because of the placement of this light, the small square white walled bedroom seems large and lonely for one sleeping toddler on a sheet-less twin bed. It is a dismal scene featuring an unsupervised child surviving on the bare necessities of life. In effect, it is impossible not to sympathize for this child, and in turn, the people of Harlem. This is one of many Davidson prints that effectively removes you from your own single-mindedness and reminds you that life is not easy for anyone; your job is to make the best of what you have.
As the ’60s Harlem photographs progress, I notice several trends. Davidson makes it obvious that this community maintains grand respect for their seniors by showcasing the elderly in their elaborately decorated homes. This is especially obvious in comparison to the toddler’s bedroom mentioned above. One specific photograph captures a woman who seems to be in her ’70s wearing many clothing layers and sitting at a craft covered kitchen table with a television playing the news in the background. Artwork adorns the paint tinted walls and the kitchen counters are overcrowded hoarding zones. I understand from this trend that the elderly either collect these items throughout their lives, or the community provides this for them and hopes someone will do the same for them when they reach old age.
I noticed Jesus imagery trending in Davidson’s work. In particular, he captures the portrait of a malnourished 7 or 8-year-old boy alone against a balcony railing. His body is against a straight bar, and centered, giving one the image of a cross. Davidson directs this boy to bow his head, contort his body, and stand so that his face is surrounded by a small patch of bright sky, serving as a halo, and producing divine effect.
Images of John F. Kennedy also make sporadic appearances in Davidson’s work, authenticating the time period. These JFK posters are featured in Davidson’s work, and JFK’s photograph is often decorated and looked to as a sort of shrine. The insertion of this detail in the 43 print series is clever and accommodating to the observer. Without specifically telling the museum goer, it is obvious to them that the people of Harlem revered this man and referred to him as a transcendent figure in their lives.
Bruce Davidson shows the world ’60s Harlem by focusing on human expression and does not follow the typical photographer’s trend of catching a city’s architecture and skyline on film to illustrate an urban setting. Instead, the people are the city in his work. Davidson’s “East 100th Street” is a meditative exhibit—a thought-provoking display of sociology and art.