Davidson’s stark photography challenges viewers to look at a nation divided

By Jenny Fisher

While documenting housing discrimination in East Harlem, photographer Bruce Davidson was struck by one man’s statement that, “what you call a ghetto, I call my home.” In the photographs on view at the Catherine Edelman Gallery, Davidson catalogs the unsettling dynamics of American society, from Freedom Riders and lunch counters during the civil rights movement, to tenement living in East Harlem, to the clash of people on a subway in the ’80s.

Davidson does all this without romanticizing his subjects and letting the viewer get off easily. His photographs of people living in East Harlem in the ’60s sometimes seem too intrusive, yet they compose a powerful record of poverty. A particularly unsettling photograph shows a naked mother and child on a dirty white bedspread. The shot is taken from above, showing cracked, unadorned walls. Yet the woman and her son are luminous and beautiful.

Showing both their nakedness and their poverty seems almost exploitative at first, but this is what makes the photograph so powerful. Without clothes to mark their class, they seem universally human, and the poverty of their setting is thrown into relief.

One photograph in particular stuck out in my mind as capturing our position at the University of Chicago. Taken in the ’80s, this picture shows a man and woman in suits sitting on a subway. They are obviously well to do. She has one hand on her purse and the other on his knee. He looks anxiously at the camera out of the corner of his eyes, while she stares nervously upward. They are surrounded by bright scrawls of graffiti, seeming to loom over and around them.

This photograph made me think of rides on the 55 CTA bus, where U of C passengers are clearly demarcated by their clothing, and often very aware of the fact that they are lucky enough to be going to a very expensive and very good school. Like the couple in this photograph, we have an uneasy relationship with the community around us.

A friend of mine recently told me that art was “elitist.” I struggled with this statement, because I believe that it doesn’t have to be—neither the works of art themselves nor how they are shown. However, even if art is indeed an elitist medium, Davidson’s photographs show that art can be used to shake people out of a safe world in order to see the grittiness and injustices he wants us to.

His photographs of the civil rights movement are extremely powerful. One photograph taken during that time period shows a black woman protester caught in a fire hose. Her body seems fixed in time, arms and legs angled awkwardly. Around her are beautiful green trees and dappled sunlight, as well as other protesters and police, out of focus. There is something disturbingly beautiful and also heartbreakingly painful about her movement.

Representative John Lewis, who took part in the Freedom Rides, said, “It was the unbelievable photographs published in newspapers and magazines that literally brought people from around the globe to small Southern towns to join the movement, inspired by those amazing pictures.” In his “amazing pictures,” Davidson passes on messages that perhaps can’t be transmitted as emotionally or as directly in words. His photographs bring us the struggle of civil rights activists and the home of the man who said, “What you call a ghetto, I call my home.”

Davidson relentlessly confronts his viewer with the spectrum of separations made by society—between black and white, in his photographs of the civil rights movement, or between rich and poor, as in his photographs of East Harlem. Even if my friend is right, and Davidson’s pictures can only be witnessed by an elite few, they still cause reverberations that spread throughout society, as shown by their effect during the civil rights movement. They are also beautiful works of art. See them at the Catherine Edelman Gallery (www.edelmangallery.com) until February 25.