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Issue No. 18 - Humanity

Bruce Davidson: LA 1964  Book Review

Bruce Davidson: LA 1964 Book Review

Image above: © Bruce Davidson,  LA 1964

The assignment: Esquire is your client. LA is your muse. Create a photo essay to accompany a non-fiction article writ in the experimental, New Journalism style—think Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson. Truth over facts! Immerse! Shoot! Report! Grab your Leica M2 and get in there kid!

The work: An homage to the gray. Bleak. Dejected. Alienated. Concrete places and acid faces. Empty highways, vacant motels, monolithic hotels, Tiny Naylor’s drive-in, from the Sunset Strip to Venice Beach.

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Images above: © Bruce Davidson,  LA 1964

The feedback: Rejection. Editors comment: “What is this about? How come there aren't any bathing beauties? Where's the swimming pool?” You’re told you’ve missed the mark, but really they just—don’t—get—it. None of the photos are run.

When Bruce Davidson returned to New York, he dismissed his west coast stint and stashed the prints in a household drawer. They remained there, forgotten and unseen for decades, till Steidl’s 2015 release of the book, simply titled, LA 1964.

“LA always was a black and white picture for me,” states Davidson, Magnum veteran and widely acclaimed documentary photographer of underdogs and societal outcasts. His monochromatic series spotlights an outsider’s gaze of the City of Angels. Leafing through the collection, we feel present—an invited accomplice to his observations. It’s a weekend getaway, a last-minute fare deal that we said yes to, and an itinerary intentionally left blank. “Come with me,” he says, without having to actually ask, and so we do.

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Images above: © Bruce Davidson,  LA 1964

The photo book opens from the vantage point of a passenger landing at LAX. The plane window provides an off-kilter framing of aluminum wings, jutting out to the horizon—a bleak scene of steel and concrete, the then-ultramodern Theme Building and airport parking lot, frond-like street lamps and a cluster of palm trees scraping the smog-soaked skies. Next, a bird’s-eye view of an empty, eight-lane highway—arteries so fundamental and iconic to the circulatory system that is the city. Scattered commuters—a station wagon, a convertible—rush towards us amidst the desert interstate and we start to taste a bit of loneliness. Our LA tour continues. Exploration on foot of the urban landscape. We’re heading down the sprawl of Sunset Strip—billboards, cars, parking lots, asphalt, scaffolding, fellow pedestrians and traffic. People pass through sunlight and shadows, apart from the backdrop, apart from a place that feels like theirs.

We head to the Pacific, Venice Beach. Surfers and beach bums glisten, but for the most part we people-watch. Suited bodies play chess below us. Body builders pose and present their precision-sculpted bodies. Everyone is anonymous. Everyone is caught in those in between moments—the gap between their everyday and realizing Davidson’s camera. Quick. Frame and focus. Click and whir.

The closing image features an elderly crowd at a bus depot, waiting in line for their connection to The Happiest Place on Earth--Disneyland; yet, bitterness frays the seams of smug faces. This final print bookends our piecemeal LA narrative—arrive eager and expectant by plane, leave soured and solo by bus. There’s something better. Get back on the highway, I-5 southbound. Happiness is just a few exits away.

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Images above: © Bruce Davidson,  LA 1964

Davidson’s LA 1964 exposes a rawness to the city—an unforgiving, but honest glimpse of indiscriminate subjects in their natural habitat. "There was a fragmentation in America," he recalls. "We were fogged in, so to speak, and Los Angeles was just emerging as a place." Despite the newness, the future the west embodies by default, his vision of LA brought out the alienated faces nestled in the grays of modernity—a multilayered contrast of light and dark that permeates beyond its visual context. Moreover, we begin to see the influences of fellow documentary photographer and his Parisian mentor, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Just as much as the anthology serves as a document of Los Angeles, frozen in ‘64, it similarly records Davidson’s internalization of Bresson’s practice of patience and readiness, of seizing the “decisive moment” ethos intrinsic to their shared genre; albeit, with his own spinoff. Davidson adds, “Documentary photography suggests you just stand back… You’re just recording. I am in the picture, believe me. I am in the picture, but I am not the picture.”

Text By Melissa Maehara

American Painted Photographs at L. Parker Stephenson Photographs

Patrick Demarchelier at Staley-Wise Gallery