One of the most highly respected and influential American documentary photographers of the past half century, Bruce Davidson spent several months photographing the daily lives of a teenage street gang for his 1959 series Brooklyn Gang. A new exhibition in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Gallery, Bruce Davidson: Brooklyn Gang features 50 black-and-white photographs from that series, which are part of a recent anonymous gift to the museum of extensive selections from the artist’s archives. The exhibition is on view now through February 28, 2021.
Brooklyn Gang was Davidson’s first major project after joining the distinguished photo agency Magnum and was the fruit of several months spent immersing himself in the daily lives of the Jokers, one of the many teenage street gangs worrying New York City officials at the time. He recorded the teenagers’ pleasures and frustrations as they attempted to define masculinity and mimic adult behavior. The photographs reflect the group’s camaraderie but also their alienation from societal norms. While many officials and commentators at the time saw the gangs as evidence of social deterioration resulting from poverty, others regarded them as the most visible manifestations of a socially disengaged generation of males—rebels without a cause.
“Bruce Davidson: Brooklyn Gang presents an intimate portrayal of the teens’ lives,” said William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “Davidson was an outsider, but one who spent so much time with the gang that he became, as he liked to say, ‘an outsider on the inside.’ Davidson offered an independent look at the lives of these disadvantaged youths; this view of society was quite different from the age of visual and social homogenization of the 1950s presented in mainstream magazines such as Life and Look and predicts the social turmoil of the 1960s.”
The images reflect the time Davidson spent with the teens hanging out on street corners and in the local candy store and accompanying them to the beach at Coney Island with their girlfriends. Included are several sets of variant images, affording a rare glimpse into Davidson’s working process.
“Despite a more than ten-year age difference, Davidson describes recognizing his own repression in his subjects and feeling a connection to their desperation,” said Barbara Tannenbaum, the CMA’s chair of prints, drawings, and photographs and curator of photography.