The show primarily draws from a recent gift from an anonymous donor of nearly 350 photographs, which have until now not gone on view at the Menil. The exhibition will give an overview of Davidson’s career from his early series chronicling a gang of teenagers known as The Jokers in in Brooklyn to his images of the civil rights movement and segregation in the South during the early 1960s.
Taken in 1959 and subsequently published in Esquire magazine, “Brooklyn Gang” is among Davidson’s best known series. He had first learned about the Jokers from a newspaper article and worked to gain their trust in order to photograph their daily movements. The series brought the 25-year-old Davidson to acclaim and resulted in him receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961.
With his Guggenheim award, Davidson, who was a Magnum photographer, continued to take images of young people across the country for a series called, “Youth in America.” He followed college-aged activists, known as the Freedom Riders, as they traveled between cities in Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana to draw attention to segregation on interstate bus lines.
“Davidson’s work is representative of how photography has, and continues to be, a crucial medium for social engagement,” Molly Everett, the curator who organized the show for the Menil, said in a statement.
Following the Freedom Riders proved to be a turning point for Davidson. “Riding on that bus,” he once said, “I became sensitized, and the exposure developed my perception.”
It eventually led him to create a related body of work. Between 1961 to 1965, Davidson continued to document the civil rights movement, which culminated in the series “Time of Change.” The images he took ranged from those showing a Harlem woman known as Mother Brown who had been born into slavey to Ku Klux Klan demonstrations in Atlanta to protesters in the Selma-to-Montgomery march to the state capitol in 1965.
The late Georgia congressman John Lewis, who was a Freedom Rider himself and knew Davidson’s work while he was making it, once remarked, “Bruce’s courageous photographs helped to educate and sensitize individuals beyond our southern borders. They shone a national spotlight on the signs, symbols, and scars of racial segregation.”
“Collection Close-Up: Bruce Davidson’s Photographs” will be on view at the Menil from December 10, 2021 until May 29, 2022.