I’m generally very generous with image making and what I would consider being problematic. It’s interesting to me that although the word “exploitation” is often used in MFA critiques across the land, it yields little results when you Google terms like “problematic photograph,” “exploitative photograph.” The reason I’m focusing on the project East 100th Street by Bruce Davidson is that Paul D’Amato mentioned it in our Doc Book class as the antithesis to his work. Paul works within communities, and ultimately, that’s the type of work that I want to make. It’s interesting, because Dawoud Bey, who also works with communities, specifically Harlem around the same time period, has a more balanced view of this work. I’m still reserving harsh judgment, but I want to take a closer look at the photographs that Davidson made.
I would say that there are many photographs in this series that are beautifully made. Many of them actually seem to be honorific, charming, and endearing. There are portraits of individuals and families in moments of their everyday life. I remember Dawoud expressing that he found it profound to see images of African Americans living their ordinary life in the Harlem On My Mind exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These images inspired him to become a photographer and document the people of Harlem. To me, I think many of Davidson’s images pass a record that deserves to be seen. However, some of the images become problematic to me when they emphasize the squalor and poor conditions that people live amongst. Some of the photographs look what a lot of people would call “ruin porn,” but with a figure placed in it. Although I do understand the tradition of socially concerned photographs that try to show something that exists in the world that may be unjust, I’m a bit skeptical about how there seems to be a strategic hierarchy that places emphasis on garbage, rubble, and crumbling infrastructure.
This image-making strategy is in opposition to how Dawoud photographed the same subject. Dawoud’s photographs are sensitively composed and radiate an emphasis on calmness and dignity. Like August Sander, Dawoud wanted to show the “types” of Harlem’s residents: the barber, the patrician, the church ladies, the hip youth. He was searching for a way to combine the specificity of photography, which only knows how to record details, with the diversity of Harlem, a neighborhood as varied as any in the country. And he wanted to do this without courting stereotypes. The description of East 100th St on the Magnum website uses the phrase “They are just like us, except they are poor and their skin may be a different color.” Is that the thesis of this work? I’m not sure how I feel about that. Honestly, looking at work like this raises more questions than it provides answers. Here are a few of those questions:
- What was the approach Davidson used to get these photographs?
- Why is it important that these images are made on one street?
- Why is there an emphasis on the poor conditions?
- At what point does honorific portraiture become romanticized or othering?
- Was Davidson celebrated as the brave white guy to go into a “bad neighborhood?”
- Were these photographs made accessible to the people in them?