In 1968, Bruce Davidson took his large-format 8x10 camera uptown to East 100th Street in East Harlem and set about recording the lives and the people of this poverty stricken block.
Davidson had spent much of the 1960s documenting the civil rights movement and the people on the fringes as well massive projects such as the building on the Verranzo bridge but in many ways East 100th Street was forever to define him as a photographer, and establish him as a great photographer.
By working with a large format camera, Davidson was saying to everyone that he was not interested in taking street photographs: fleeting images where the subjects might not even really know you are there. Instead an 8x10 camera (8x10 refers to the size of the negative -- 8" by 10") requires a tripod and considerable effort and time (minutes) just to focus the camera and take light measurements as well as considerable effort and conspicousness to just lug around. The result is rather formal pictures made with the subjects true consent.
And so the pictures are truly intimate portraits made with the collaboration of the people of East 100th street. They are truly a remarkable document.
Davidson takes you inside people's living rooms and bedrooms, into the back alleys and onto the rooftops. He shows you the dinner at the dinner table, and couples swaying to the music in a bar. You see the pictures of Jesus and JFK on their walls. And the family with the same clock on their wall that hung in my kitchen as I grew up.
You see the old man shivering in his bed, looking straight into the camera, an old tired dog under his bed also looking straight into the bed, the floor dirty, the walls bare except for tired old wallpaper. An unforgettable image. You will always remember the child bundled up in his coat, wool hat pulled down tight over his ears, standing by his mailboxes looking straight at you. There is Davidson's famous image of the young black couple smiling, happy, and dignified, cheek-to-check looking into the camera. There is the proud old black woman, sitting in her run-down apartment, drinking coffee, with a portrait of JFK staring at you.
They are Americans; they are Christians; they are black or hispanic or white; they are proud; they dress up nicely on Sundays to go to church; they love their children; they love each other; they drink; they go to the park and have bbq's on Sunday, and have the same pictures on their walls as do "us, other Americans". They are just like us, except they are poor and their skin maybe a different color.
And while this might not seem radical today, in 1968, this was extraordinary. Even though it is no longer a controversial sentiment, the photos are still powerful in terms of their intimacy, the scope of the lives they document, and, yes, the message they send.
It is a book that you will be proud to own, containing images you won't forget.