Bruce Davidson, one of the most highly respected and influential American documentary photographers of the past half century, offered an independent look at America in the age of visual and social homogenization presented by Life and Look magazines. Davidson’s 1959 series Brooklyn Gang—his first major project—was the fruit of several months spent photographing the daily lives of the Jokers, one of the many teenage street gangs worrying New York City officials at the time. Bruce Davidson features 50 photographs from that series, which are part of a recent anonymous gift to the museum of extensive selections from the artist’s archives. Included are several sets of variant images, affording a rare glimpse into Davidson’s working process.
Davidson approached the Jokers after reading a newspaper article detailing their fight with a Puerto Rican gang. The Jokers’ home turf was a block in Park Slope, Brooklyn, now one of New York’s most desirable neighborhoods but then an impoverished, mostly Irish area. 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.
Davidson’s subjects were mostly Catholic school students or dropouts. “I was 26 and they were 15, but I could see my own repression in them and I began to feel a connection to their desperation. I began to feel their isolation and even my own.” Davidson’s black-and-white images reflect the teens’ alienation but also their camaraderie. He hung out with them on street corners and in the local candy store, and accompanied them to the beach at Coney Island with their girlfriends. Describing his process, the artist says, “I stay a long time. . . . I am an outsider on the inside.”