Visual Arts Review: At the MFA — Bruce Davidson’s Dramatic Vision of ’60s Harlem

Despite the show’s darkness, East 100th Street’s exploration of Harlem in the ’60s is in many ways a testament to the endurance of love.

East 100th Street by Bruce Davidson. At The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, through September 8, 2013.

By Holly Bieler

Bruce Davidson’s complex vision of ’60s Harlem — vulnerability and strength. Photo: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos, Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Bruce Davidson’s photography exhibition East 100th Street (at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts until September 8), comprises 43 photographs taken on the block between First and Second Avenues in East Harlem during the ’60s, ground zero for the economic depravity and social injustices afflicting America’s minorities. The growing unrest of the late ’60s inner city is not illustrated by way of stereotypical portraits of demonstrations or violence. Instead, the sorrows and passions of the era are presented in more subdued, though not less striking, form. Through the trash-strewn streets and tiny apartments of the exhibition’s Harlem terrain, Davidson introduces us to people who are obviously tortured by the injustice of their circumstances, yet for all of the show’s darkness, East 100th Street is in many ways an exploration of the endurance of love.

In one photograph (all the photographs in the series are titled “Untitled”) a young mother sits naked on her small bed with her child. She is a consummate image of vulnerability: she is supported by one thin arm, her left breast exposed. The weight of her son, leaning against her body, seems to be pressing her backward. Still, the woman’s stare is confident, assured, her arm draped tightly around her son as if he were a lucky charm. In a way, of course, he is. The ferocity of her eyes, shatteringly dark and crisp against the warm light browns and pale creams of which the rest of the portrait is composed, assure the viewer of a strength that poverty and hopelessness cannot undermine. Her love is the saving grace.

East 100th Street was first exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970, following a two-year period in which Davidson visited the storied Harlem block almost daily. While the intimacy of the scenes affirm Davidson’s assimilation into the tapestry of Harlem life, many of his photographs feature people staring straight into the lens or positioned in a way that suggests the inhibition of a novice subject. This tinge of artifice, of self-awareness, undercuts any attempt by Davidson, or the viewer, to assume a patronizing attitude.

[Couple on Rooftop] Photo: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos / Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The result is the creation of a complex, sometimes unsettling, profusion of dramatic ironies. In one photograph, a couple stands in an impassioned embrace against a dirty, shut-off stairwell. The setting is decidedly grim, the loving couple the only sign of vitality against a backdrop of gray glass and spoiled, white concrete. If Davidson wanted to condescend, the couple would be kissing, oblivious of the camera, a cliche image of amorous hope set the bleak milieu of inner city ruin. The photograph is not so simple, however. While the young man looks lost in passionate revelry, the woman stares squarely at the camera, almost annoyed. This glare reflects the profundity of Davidson’s decision to spotlight the awkwardness of an intimate human moment. This dramatic approach is representative of the show—moments of inspiration are shadowed with heartbreak because the subjects are usually aware of Davidson’s, and our, prying eyes. In that way, we are forced to acknowledge the portrait in its totality, both its sorrows and its hopes.

This synthesis of optimism and despair is explored throughout the exhibit, often juxtaposed within the same tight frame. However, the most touching meditation on this duality occurs in a photograph where disappointment is pointedly missing. In the portrait, a teenage boy and girl stand cheek to cheek, he holding her protectively in the archetypical pose of any young ’60s couple. She is smiling but distractedly so; she seems to be happy just to be, an image of youthful optimism for its own sake. In contrast, the boy stares dead straight into the lens, lips pursed, his ferocious, vigilant glare sparked by the challenge to preserve youthful optimism. It is a moving portrait of the two sides of adolescent idealism; her spontaneous optimism, his happiness that he has the power to preserve her innocence. That he cannot, of course, makes for one of the saddest encounters in this memorable exhibition.

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