If a museum is a sort of city, then one of its galleries is like a city block or street. So the single-gallery snugness of “Bruce Davidson: East 100th Street” feels just right. These smallish black-and-white pictures about a smallish area belong in a smallish space. Most are a little more than 6 inches by 8 inches. The show runs through Sept. 8 at the Museum of Fine Arts.
East 100th Street is in East Harlem. It was a bad neighborhood, though far from the worst, when Davidson started making daily visits in 1966 with his large-format camera to photograph there. He’d keep going for another two years. The Museum of Modern Art showed 43 of the photographs in 1970. In 2011, the MFA purchased the prints that had been in the MoMA show. Those photographs, along with a copy of Davidson’s 1970 book, “East 100th Street” and a maquette for the book, make up the show.
Davidson, who’s been a member of the Magnum photo collective for more than half a century, is best-known for his ability to engage with his human subjects. His friend Diane Arbus once said, “You know, Bruce, you’re better when people are not looking at the camera, and I’m better when people are looking at the camera.’’ Put another way, he’s best when he and the person he’s shooting have been looking at each other before and after the camera’s involved. That’s never been more the case than with “East 100th Street.”
The exhibition starts with one of the few photographs where buildings take precedence over people. (It’s telling that every picture has at least one person in it.) This particular photograph serves as scene-setting. Davidson shows a row of tenement facades. Six stories high, they’re like an urban parapet. The remaining photographs demonstrate how thoroughly Davidson breaches that parapet.
“I don’t think it really matters why or how I came to East 100th Street,” he has said. “I was permitted to go into a life that I didn’t know and experience it . . . with my camera. I have come away with much more than photographs.” One can sense that. Despite not living there, he’s more neighbor than interloper. There’s no feeling of intrusion to these photographs. The people Davidson photographs are just that: people. They’re not specimens or case studies. Davidson doesn’t preach or prod or protest. He observes, accepts, even, in a respectful way, embraces.
Certain visual elements recur: beds, fire escapes, couples, families. People are almost never alone in these photographs. In a way that seems utterly natural and unforced, Davidson’s images are about community.
Two kids are practically swallowed up by the large white couch they sit on. Behind them a large chunk of city is visible through a window. But it’s that piece of furniture that seems to constitute its own world. One young couple, sitting on a bed, avert their gazes. Conversely, note how with another couple the young man practically stares down Davidson’s lens — and disproves Arbus. Four guys sprawl on a mattress, a couple of them holding cans of Schaefer (“the one beer to have/when you’re having more than one!”).
Davidson shoots both interiors and exteriors and, in some of the most striking photos, the interplay between them. There’s the way a triangle of light from outside, seen through slightly parted curtains, almost jumps out at you. It’s a bridge between inside and out. Davidson uses variations on that interplay multiple times and to excellent effect.
These photographs have an unemphatic, even subdued quality. This isn’t Jacob Riis’s New York or Weegee’s. “What you call a ghetto,” one of Davidson’s subjects said to him, “I call my home.” In some ways, the series feels more ’50s than ’60s. That is to say, a penchant for theatricality was the ’60s at both its best and worst. There’s nothing theatrical about these pictures. They’re full of artifice and imagination, of course. There’s nothing random or haphazard about them. Davidson’s far too good a photographer for that. But neither is there anything stagy or prepossessing. His artfulness shows itself not least in refusing to call attention to itself.
The show feels ’50s in another way. The two landmark events in American photography in that decade were MoMA’s “Family of Man” show and the publication of Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” “East 100th Street” has nothing of that show’s lockstep uplift, but it very much reveals an affinity with “The Americans.”
A photograph of two windows in a façade recalls Frank’s “Parade — Hoboken.” The occasional jukebox or flag could be a visual homage. More important, Davidson is Frank turned inside out. It’s a piece of the city we’re being shown, not a continent-sized country. Each photographer’s relationship to space is different. Where Frank finds confinement in openness (America won’t let you escape), Davidson finds acceptance of (or is it resignation to?) close quarters. His people are at home in their small rooms, on their front stoops and rooftops. Above all, there’s the way in which Frank’s pictures are much more about the space his people inhabit than the people proper. With Davidson, it’s people, always people, first and foremost. These spaces are where they live, not who they are.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.