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.
Please view the press kit for more information and a selection of visual highlights.
In conjunction with the exhibition Bruce Davidson: Brooklyn Gang, listen as curator Barbara Tannenbaum and photographer Vincent Cianni explore the roles and responsibilities of the documentary photographer. In his projects We Skate Hardcore, Gays in the Military and the Newburgh Community Photo Project, Cianni has explored issues of community, memory and social justice.
Documenting White Masculinity
How are gender and race expressed in Bruce Davidson’s series Brooklyn Gang? In this Close Looking at a Distance session, we interrogate several photographs from the series together and contemplate what each composition may express about the young men who appear in them. Listen as host Key Jo Lee moderates this lively and interactive conversation.
Fall Members Party
Thursday, November 19, 6 p.m.
Exclusively for members (all levels)
All CMA members are invited to celebrate the museum’s fall exhibitions: Bruce Davidson: Brooklyn Gang, Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art and Fashioning Identity: Mola Textiles of Panamá. Hear from the exhibitions’ curators: Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography; Kristen Windmuller-Luna, curator of African art; Sue Bergh, curator of Pre-Columbian and Native North American art; and Andrea Vazquez de Arthur, Leigh and Mary Carter Director’s Research Fellow. The evening also includes special appearances by director and president William Griswold and former CMA curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, joining us from his new post at the Museum of Modern Art. Lastly, the event features an exclusive musical performance by Chief Ayanda Clarke, Ajibilu Awo of Osogbo, with THE FADARA GROUP in celebration of Second Careers. Chief Ayanda is a Babalawo, an Egúngún initiate and a GRAMMY® Award–winning master percussionist. He is also the founder and CEO of THE FADARA GROUP, a Brooklyn-based company that intertwines music, culture and spirituality.
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