Exhibition Review: Bruce Davidson Retrospective at Sala Rekalde, Bilbao

Unobtrusively nestled into the Sala Rekalde’s building in the city center of Bilbao, Spain, the largest career spanning retrospective of American photographer Bruce Davidson left its mark on this artistically rich gem of a city. Comprised of over 200 prints shot primarily in black and white, Davidson’s work was exhibited in various rooms with 16 themes, each accompanied by display cases in the center of each room with magazine and newspaper printings with photographs from Davidson’s career.

 

The experience of witnessing Davidson’s photographs in person was truly enchanting. The prints are poignant and evocative, and convey a stronger sense of Davidson’s vision that cannot simply be replicated on a screen. The way the light in the building reflected off each glossy surface of the photograph, and the details and movement captured in each shot left the viewer with a visceral and emotional reaction to Davidson’s work.

 

Spanning the duration of his career, the retrospective highlighted some of Davidson’s most famous series from the 1960s, including Brooklyn Gang, East 100th Street, and photographs from the Civil Rights Movement.

Brooklyn Gang, New York City, 1959. Coney Island, Kathy fixing her hair in a cigarette machine mirror Magnum Photos

Montgomery, Alabama, 1961. National Guardsmen protect the Freedom Riders during their ride from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi Magnum Photos

The retrospective also included images from Davidson’s travels to the U.K. during the 1960s, with photographs from London, Scotland, Wales, and Yorkshire. Currently residing in London, these images were particularly exciting to see, as Davidson captured an experience of what it was like to live in these cities 60 years ago.

London, U.K. 1960 Magnum Photos

The reason behind my trip to Bilbao to see the retrospective was specifically for Davidson’s Subway photographs from 1980, the topic of my dissertation. The exhibition displayed early photographs of the series which were taken in black and white, as opposed to the majority color images I explored in my dissertation. Seeing the photographs first hand in conversation with and situated within Davidson’s career was an invaluable experience, and extremely beneficial towards my research.

Subway, 1980. New York City Magnum Photos

The exhibition concluded with photographs Davidson took in Southern California between 2008-2013, which were particularly evocative personally, having grown up in Los Angeles. He captured the essence of Los Angeles through his depiction of beaches, high-rise buildings, palm trees, and traffic, which evoked a sense of home and nostalgia that concluded the retrospective on a perfect note.

Los Angeles, 2008 Magnum Photos

Dissertation Discussion: Arielle

 

What is the working title of your dissertation?

My title is very working (I change my mind about it daily), but it is currently “Underground Intimacy: Self-Fashioning in Bruce Davidson’s Subway, 1980”.

What led you to choose this subject?

I first saw a few photographs from the Subway series around one year ago on our amazing tutor Rebecca Arnold’s Instagram. I did not know at the time this series would become the topic of my dissertation until I kept coming back to them, enchanted by this closeness I felt to the people within the photographs and Davidson’s use of color and light. I was interested in documentary photography and dress, and I thought the subway created an interesting platform to discuss groups of bodies and self-fashioning.

Favorite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

Anthropologist Marc Augé’s Non-places has been the most challenging but most helpful book I have read; I use his theory about transitory spaces like the subway to contextualize my argument. But I’ve also really enjoyed researching the subcultures of New York City in 1980. I don’t directly include it in my dissertation, but I now know a surprising amount about gang culture/customs and the evolution of graffiti in the subway.

Favorite image/object in your dissertation and why?

I can’t choose a favorite! I love the photographs as a series. But the first photograph I knew I wanted to include, and the first visual analysis I wrote, is this photograph of a woman dressed in an all yellow tube top and running short pairing. Her body is turned away from the viewer, but the way Davidson captures the color of her garments and the light reflecting off her skin is so beautiful.

Favorite place to work? 

I do the majority of my research at the V&A National Art Library, but I do my best writing at Timberyard, which is a coffee shop in Seven Dials. (I do also need to give a shout out to the employees at the Pret next to the Courtauld who are so kind to me—they are always asking about my dissertation as I go to them daily for sustenance and caffeine).