Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
~Out of Print~
Bruce Davidson is a major figure in what might be called humanistic photojournalism, having produced a number of brilliant studies over a long career. He has consistently worked in the classic black-and-white documentary mode. He's probably best known for East 100th Street, a photo documentary of a Harlem neighborhood in the late 1960s, but he also produced the early 1960s Brooklyn Gang and a large body of work on the civil rights movement. This book collects Davidson's photographs of three different circuses over a decade. The first and by far the most poignant is Clyde Beatty's in 1958, in the waning days of traveling Big Top circuses. Next is Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, looking out of place in a huge concrete coliseum in North Carolina in 1965. Last is an almost quaint family-run circus in Ireland in 1967.
Davidson's focus isn't so much on the show-biz side as on the prosaic reality of the lives of the circus folk. The great Emmett Kelly makes an appearance, but The first section of the book in particular delves into the life of Jimmy Armstrong, dwarf-clown of the Beatty circus. Some of these photographs have become iconic; here they are presented as intended, part of a sympathetic look into the lives of these working people. The photographs themselves are remarkable; incisive, beautifully composed, all rich tones and glowing highlights, with grain actually adding to the impact.
The book itself is also beautifully crafted. It's relatively large, of simple embossed cloth adorned by inset photographs on both front and back covers. The photographic reproductions are excellent; varnished tritones with remarkably good shadow detail. The book is introduced by a short but touching preface by Davidson. Sam Holmes contributes a much longer post-script that explains how Davidson came to photograph the circuses, and goes into some detail about the lives of the characters involved.
All in all a lovely book, especially for anyone who likes documentary photography as art. Or, if you just like the circus.
Eye Mind Spirit: The Enduring Legacy of Minor White
Hardcover: 80 pages
Publisher: Howard Greenberg Gallery; 1st edition (February 1, 2009)
9.7 x 8.7 inches
~Warning: availability may be limited~
Published at $50
Given his immense impact on photography in America, it's amazing to me how little is available in print regarding Minor White. He taught an entire generation of prominent photographers during his years at Rochester Institute of Technology. Pete Turner, Paul Caponigro, Jerry Uelsmann, Peter C. Bunnell, Nathan Lyons, even David Plowden all studied under White.
Currently you can still find The Moment of Seeing: Minor White at the California School of Fine Arts (2006). It's a rather dry account of his early years teaching in San Francisco just after WWII, but it scarcely touches on his artistic or æsthetic philosophy, and contains very little of his actual work. Rites and Passages (Aperture monograph, 1978) is quite good, but long out of print. His classic Mirrors Messages Manifestations goes for $500 and up if you can find it.
Hence this new book is a welcome, if slender addition to available sources. It's associated with an exhibit late last year at Howard Greenberg Gallery. It's a modestly sized but beautifully printed book in simple red linen cover with an inset photograph. There's a concise preface by Peter C. Bunnell, well known critic and curator of the Minor White archive at Princeton—and of course a student of White's at RIT. Next is a thoughtful essay by Nathan Lyons, describing the intense circle of devoted students and photographers orbiting around Minor in the late 1950s, a time when the world of photography was far, far smaller than today.
The selection of images includes some "greatest hits," but also many I've never seen before. The duotone reproductions are quite good, comparing favorably to those (admittedly much older) in Rites and Passages. If you like Minor White's work, or merely want something of him in your library, you'll want to seek this out. It's only an edition of 1500, and my copy is labled #1329, so don't delay.
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "I echo your remarks regarding Circus, Geoff. I purchased a copy last spring but forgot about it until last fall. It was like finding a $50 bill in my sofa cushions. I find Davidson's bodies of work completely immersive, rather like a good movie. I had the privilege of meeting Bruce two years ago. He's a remarkably humble fellow despite his many accomplishments and accolades.
"The most remarkable memory I have of that evening was learning how he has kept touch with so many of the subjects featured in what appear to be casual 'street' images. Walking through his 'Subway' series, as well as his 'East 100th Street' work he could often recount post-image life histories of so many of his subjects it just dropped my jaw. ('Oh, she became a NY public librarian and married a professor at NYU. This guy served a 5-year stint in jail for armed robbery but now works at a community center and has three kids. I went to his wedding.' Etc.)
"When I met him he claimed to be winding-down, now that he was well into his 70s. He remarked that much of his time was being spent quietly reorganizing his image archive with an assistant in his NY apartment. He commented briefly on one large personal project looming but gave the impression of slowing down.
"So it has been with quite some chuckles that I have since seen his name appear as a featured speaker / participant at what seems like a steady drizzle of events! Go get 'em, Bruce!
"Also, thank you for the heads-up on the Minor White book. It immediately brought to mind that I know relatively little about this influential fellow's work. So, despite having taken a pledge (to myself) not to buy any more photo books, I clicked the link above and a copy is making its way to me. (Now I have to take the pledge again.)"
Featured Comment by Bob Zimmerman (not Bob Dylan): "Odd that you would be writing about Bruce Davidson just as Bob Dylan releases the cover of his new album featuring a Bruce Davidson photo."