In the twentieth century, street photography came to be defined by pioneers in the genre like New York photographer Bruce Davidson (b. 1933). Davidson has been a photographer for Magnum since 1958 and he has produced several gritty and highly significant both photographically and socio-historically, photodocumentaries of the twentieth century. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston recently acquired forty-three prints from his defining photoessay, “East 100th Street,” originally exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1970.
These photographs capture life in what was characterized as one of the “worst neighborhoods” in NYC in the 1950’s. Davidson began this large format project in 1967, returning day after day to the one block area of East 100th Street between First and Second Avenue in Manhattan’s East Harlem. Early on in the project Davidson got the inevitable question from a woman on the street: “What are you doing here?” Davidson answered “I am taking pictures of the ghetto…” This he relates was followed by an awkward silence until the woman responded: “Well, what you call a ghetto, I call my home.”
And this is the very point of true street photography, isn’t it? Davidson’s images epitomize the the media of fine silver gelatin printing. He is a master. But more importantly as you slowly walk around the intimate gallery in which the MFA has displayed them, your can not help but smile repeatedly. These are people whose essential humanity rises above poverty and adversity. Their nobility is in the gestures, a hand touch here, a couple hugging or dancing in front of a jukebox, a mother and infant child, or a strong muscular man holding a little baby on his shoulders. This was the meaning of East 100th Street.
The exhibit runs through September 8 at the MFA.