Friday, August 10, 2007

Circus by Bruce Davidson

I’m of two minds when it comes to the work of Bruce Davidson. There is the Davidson capable of great social commentary with books like East 100th Street and Brooklyn Gang and then there is the Bruce Davidson who seems less political and more commercially minded with books like Central Park or perhaps Subway. His new book Circus sits comfortably somewhere in the middle.

In 1958 Davidson traveled out to New Jersey to photograph the Clyde Beatty Circus in Palisades Park. It was during this first encounter within the circus atmosphere that he met the subject of one of his well known photo essays, Jimmy “Little Man” Armstrong. It is this essay in its complete form that opens the book Circus.

Published this year by Steidl, the book is broken into three separate sections of pictures for each circus Davidson photographed. The first, the Clyde Beatty Circus, was approached out of self motivation and at the suggestion from a Magnum photo agency employee. The images from the other two occasions in 1965 and 1967 were made on assignments for magazines. Although the results photographically, with a few exceptions, seem to be made from the same state of curiosity (as oppose to fulfilling magazine assignments) it is the earliest work with the Clyde Beatty circus that wins out.

It is in those early photos that the sense of circus life for the performers and animals is described most effectively. Davidson ingratiated himself into and the lives of the performers and circus workers without any official permission. In these pictures, the circus may be enjoyable to watch for the audience but the atmosphere behind the scenes seems exhausting with little space for comfort and long work hours. The crew seems to be a collection of outsiders whose dreams are fading and the reality of the constant life on the road has replaced them. Aside from the wonderful essay on Jimmy the dwarf (21 images), Davidson works from subject to subject staying well within our preconceptions of what circuses are. Elephants, an animal that proves to be an attraction for any photographer, get their fair share of attention before Davidson’s lens; more so than even the lion tamer or the actual performers themselves.

With the second section of the book, that was made on assignment photographing the Ringling Brothers Circus in North Carolina in 1965, the atmosphere is much cleaner and seems less claustrophobic. Again, Davidson covers the scene well but with little variation of subject from the set of pictures from the previous section.

The last section of photographs, also made on assignment, is of the James Duffy and Sons Circus in Ireland in 1967. This section of only 13 images has a completely different tone to the pictures. Mostly this is because Davidson has switched to the 4X5 camera whose descriptive power is so compelling, even the final staged portrait of the entire circus becomes infused with added interest. Like in East 100th Street, Davidson handles the larger format well while working on the fly. These images concentrate a bit more on the actual performances and their craftsmanship with the larger format makes the viewer wish that he was off assignment and could spend more time creating an entire portrait of the surroundings like he attempted in the earlier series.

The descriptive differences apparent in this book made me think about a conversation I had with an older photographer who challenged me to name a great contemporary artist working in 35mm today. Admittedly I was stumped for an answer as most working artists today are utilizing at least medium format if not large format cameras.

Apart from Davidson which most people would regard as a photojournalist and may not afford him the grand title of being an artist, this book illustrates my thinking towards both types of description. I am so seduced by the clarity and extension of tonal range that is a characteristic of the larger negative that at first I think that is my preference. Then looking back at the first series of images, it is the fluidity and seeming speed at which the camera can be operated to describe fleeting moments that wins out.

The book is beautifully printed and the design is clean and straightforward. The tan color of the bookcloth and dirt colored endpapers foreshadow the darker tone that the book has in its content. A reproduction of the famous image of Jimmy Armstrong smoking in the rain is tipped into the cover. The quality of paper and material matches some of the other fine Davidson titles seen published in the past few years.

Bruce opens the book with an essay entitled 'The Dwarf and The Elephant Girl' in which he gives his recollections in an eloquent fifteen hundred words. To finish, there is an essay from Sam Holmes titled 'Remarkable Feats – Some Notes on the Circus and Bruce Davidson’s Photographs.' Sam Holmes was in charge of the picture library at Magnum Photos and was the person who suggested that Davidson go check out the circus in Palisades Park, New Jersey. His lengthy essay is full of information on circuses and the lives of the performers featured in Davidson’s photos. It is an interesting read until one odd moment in his essay where he defends the practice of circuses like Ringling Brothers and their use of animals in the acts. Here he writes at length about the good deeds for elephant well-being accomplished by Ringling Brothers, and the essay seems to deteriorate into a press release from their PR department.

Holmes writes: Joining other conservation groups, Ringling backed passage of the Asian Elephant Conservation Reauthorization Act of 2002. This act was to provide a total of four million dollars of public and privately donated funds for conservation projects in twelve countries through the year 2007. This was good news for the millions of Americans who learned to love elephants at circuses and zoos, but conservation needs to be a long-term effort, and will need continuing political support by the American public. I fear that if elephants are banned from American circuses, as animal extremists are urging, the next generation would forget about them, and the preservation effort would falter and fail.

So with these passages from Sam Holmes, this seemingly non political book becomes momentarily but unnecessarily infused with the politics of today.

That aside is not enough to detract; the main detriment to this title is that the content seems to have been stretched a bit to make a full book. It would have been a much less commercially successful project, but I could image a wonderful but very small book containing only the 21 images from the Jimmy Armstrong material. Those are the images that Davidson made while he lived with the circus for several weeks. In this book, those are the images that will continue to compel me to bring this title down off the shelf.

Buy online at Steidlville


Sufian said...

Damn! A blog this good and hardly a comment! Friend, you need an Alec-Soth-Stephen-shore-like controversy!

Kidding aside, love the blog, hope you will continue forever and ever, heart you and stuff etc etc.

Just bought the koudelka book. Was hesitant, but your review sold it.

Live long and prosper.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Sufian...I need more active readers like yourself. The fact that I received more comments on the Terry Richardson review is indicative of your remark about controversy.

What do you recommend? I have 300-400 readers per day and no one comments.
(I have on a sad face)

Thanks for the comments and nice words.

Colin [] said...

Please don't be controversial simply to gather large numbers of comments.

This post is a lovely post, and one which will probably mean that I buy the book. Until I do so, I have nothing to say about the book, and it seems unlikely that, even when I have done so, that I will be able to add to what you have written.

I am not knowledgeable enough about the conservation of elephants to know whether the passage you quote is a load of bull, or a valid viewpoint.

Please don't let the lack of comments make you feel unappreciated.

Unknown said...

I rather enjoy your reviews. The only bad thing is that I'm spending rather more on books than I should be. :(

Like Soufian, I glanced through Koudelka's book when it first appeared, but didn't understand it, though I knew who he was and many think him a god. Then after reading your review I went out and bought it before it disappears.

I still don't like his work the way I do others (Doisneau, HCB, Ronis I all took to immediately), but I suspect that it has more to do with me not understanding him yet. Certainly his style is unique and I now understand the peculiar style of a few photographers I've come across - they're copying him.

But I don't regret the purchase.

As for comments, you don't get many, but the ones you do get are civil and to the point, which is more useful than 100 outraged people who missed the boat. They'll come.

Also, most people don't know who you are, but if they did, they would be here in greater numbers. I remember when Soth and DAH started their blogs, they had v few comments until they were outed, and now it's a deluge at times - esp on DAH.

Matt Weber said...

I looked at the book last week and didn't have $65 on me, but I'll buy it soon. I agree that the images from '58 are the ones I liked the most.

PJ/Artist...I think that's not worth discussing in Bruce's case. He's both, and I think he might be the best "New York" photographer ever. That's saying a lot considering how many there have been.

I would have been more comfortable with Szarkowski labeling Bruce as "The central photographer of his generation" than Winogrand.

Anonymous said...


I'm not out to be controversial...I do wish I got more comments but what can you do? I am not asking questions that demand answers so...I've made my bed and its a comfy one.

On the note about elephants, to me it wasn't whether or not the statement about Ringling Brothers philanthropy was true or even valid but the tone in which this appears within the context of the rest of the essay. See the book and let me know what you think.

Colin [] said...


Its on three weeks delivery, so don't hold your breath :-)

Anonymous said...

Matt: If Davidson is/was the central photographer of his geneation we are all in big trouble.

Matt Weber said...


This stuff is totally subjective and I''ve always loved Winogrand, but think Bruce is better. Frank had his 10 years...Danny Lyon had an incredible but short run too, but then he sort of petered off...


Antonio Olmos said...

great blog. i am thrilled to have found this on the internet. keep blogging

Anonymous said...

Oh I'm sorry, I read but never comment. Maybe I'm just not much of a talker.

I think you're right about the smaller book as a more perfect entity. But it's a beautiful book and I'm glad to see the other stuff I saw it in the bookshop and oohed and aahed over the beauty of it. Then put it back on the shelf and left the shop as I didn't have £35. As the second person to make that remark in these comments, we may look no further for the troubles besetting photo book publishing.

What are your mixed feelings about Davidson? I haven't a clue about the photojournalist v artist debate, but why is one better than the other?

Anonymous said...

RE: Davidson vs. Winogrand...

For my money, the difference is that Davidson tells a story (journalism.) He tells a story in a way we can all understand. We don't question the veracity of the story, only whether it was worth his time. And he does it very well.

Winogrand (early on) tried to describe his vision, the things you catch out of the corner of your eye as you walk down the street, that make you smile, make you feel like a perfect moment in some small way just presented itself. He tries to grab those moments, hold on to them.

His work is an accumulation of small pleasures, epiphanies, near-perfect slices of time and space. That isn't enough for many people who want their art to be more grand.

(And yes, after a while, Winogrand took his own mantra--I photograph to see what something looks like photographed--to absurd lengths: the work turned into the camera's vision rather than his own.)

It may be that Szarkowski called Winogrand "The central photographer of his generation" because for an age in which "experience" was the central motif, here was someone trying to articulate "experience" visually.

Of course, Szarkowski could have also realized that no one was going to remember that period very well so at least we'll have Garry's pics to remind us (see 1964.)

Anonymous said...


Thanks for reading and now...commenting. My mixed feelings are entirely between his political work/books and what I perceive as his commercial work/books. I don't think either being an artist or photojournalist is better. They are different ways of describing the world. Funny enough I just got embroiled in a controversey over almost this same question on a different site. Here is what I wrote over there:

"That is also why I make distinctions between artists and photojournalists. To afford a photojournalist the unlimited tools and subjectivity and method to create their images would be a dangerous trend. What, after all, would happen to your beloved notion (albeit false) of truth telling? Artists are afforded the ability to use any means necessary to reflect upon this three way collaboration that is: the world, the medium and the practitioner. It would be dangerous for photojournalists to be afforded the same means. Ask Ed Keating who was fired from the New York Times because he supposedly set up an image. An artist is held to no such harnessing."

Anonymous said...


That's a revelation to me that you would like Davidson over Winogrand. Interesting...

It's funny...I start to think Davidson isn't that great and then I look back on East 100th street. Then I look at Brooklyn Gang. Then I look at the Time of Change book. And I look at the England Scotland book. I stop there because personally I think Subway is a horrible book, Central Park book I refuse to even own...anyway after looking at those books I realize, he was really good.

Anonymous said...


If you don't have any of Koudelka's other books, get this new one. I guarantee you won't regret it a few years from now even if in this moment you have your doubts. Hopefully there will be some reprints of the earlier titles again as the sequencing of those is great.

Thanks for the comments and please keep checking in.

Unknown said...


I did pick up his book. While I can't say I'm gobsmacked, I do appreciate it more now that I've spent a few hours with it instead of the 5 minutes at the shop.

Caught in the rain yesterday outside my favourite art bookshop, I ended up with Circus.

Holme's essay at the back seems peculiar. To me it distracts from the book. His dream, it seems, would have been to be a circus performer, and his essay is more of a defence of the circus as performance art. The paragraph on elephants didn't stand out to me, except that it was perhaps a little more desperate than the bulk of his essay.

Why don't you like Davidson's Central Park book? I liked it much more than his subway book and bought it (last year). Looking through it just now, it strikes me now as the kind of photos you might find in the Time's Sunday magazine. Is that what you don't like? They're too easy? Central Park as an idealised United Nations?

Circus is a much darker book than Central Park.

Is that the danger for all photographers who last more than a handful of years? Come apart at the seams like Winogrand or degenerate into comfort food like Davidson and Erwitt?

Anonymous said...

Matt: I dont consider Lyon a New York City photographer - although Destruction of Lower Manhatten is one of his best books. Will agree with Mr Ladd that Subway is dreadful. NYC photograhers: Lou Fauer, Jeff Mermelstein, Bruce Gilden etc and Jeff Ladd - who works the streets on a regular basis.

jennifer said...

Yes, I just wanted to agree with all of the above, that the reason you don't get more comments is because your posts are so articulate and whole that they don't encourage the same kind of commenting just-to-hear-oneself-speak drivel found on so many other blogs.

That is one of the reasons I come back every day.

Anonymous said...


The central park book for me just seems to have nothing at stake. I know all photography doesn't have to be loaded with dark meaning, beauty, which many of those images describe, can carry photographs just well alone. But it just doesn't speak to my life which has joy and frustration and love and a whole range of emotions.

That aside for a second, the main problem I have is mostly the gimmicky fisheye hasselblad lens he used that grabs all the attention with its distortion etc. Same goes for the widelux. I have seen very few artists using those tools that are able to wrestle the attention getting charecteristics of those tools into the background so I can get to the content and not be so distracted by the oddness of the form. It makes things seem I bet you could photograph a person really getting killed with the hassleblad fisheye and it would still seem artificial. Those are my main reasons for avoiding that title.

To your other point....Robert Frank said something to the effect that artists do their best work before they are 40. I hope that is not true and you can point to many examples that discount that thought. I think many things happen. People either start off on fire or work up to steam. Also how much recognition you receive sometimes makes people rest on their laurels. A teacher of mine use to refer to it like this: With ever exhibition or compliment or moment in the spotlight you have to be very careful. It is often like taking a bite of that poison apple. That attention, and desire for attention, can become a strong weight on your motivations that can pull you off course.

In my limited success as a photographer, I have felt a little pull of exactly that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the plug Double EE.

Matt Weber said...

What can I say, I didn't think praising Davidson would create a stir, but I see that everyone has some valid points here.

I think Subway is a great book and I spent a lot of my youth underground. I'm not expecting a lengthy response Jeff, but I wonder why you dislike it so much. Too commercial? I took the book for what it was, a fairly accurate description of what the system looked like back then, with some very strong images. Shooting down there with K64 and a flash? That in itself was something. I think it shows the '80s quite well, like Evan's time capsule of the '40s.

EE...I know Lyon's not a NYC guy, but I was thinking of that era and it's actually absurd to give anyone that title anymore. Maybe Cartier-Bresson in the '30s, but since then, the talent pool is/was too huge and diverse to anoint anyone anything...

PS: I've met photographers who think that HCB's work was weak! Proving how subjective this stuff is.

Anonymous said...

Matt: yes, everything is subjective but mentioning Evans and Davidson in the same sentence is a sin. HCB's NYC work from 46/47 is great, but after 1947 HCB's work is nowhere for me.

Anonymous said...


Just to show you how two faced I can be at times, I bought the first edition of Subway when I was new to New York around 1987. I later sold it when I was funding my trips back and forth to Yugoslavia in 2001. I then bought the second edition a year ago which I now have kept.

So...a book I say is horrible, I've bought twice!

The thing that bugs me is that the people mostly react to Davidson like deer in the headlights. There are a lot of great photos and the nostalga factor of the 1,2,3 trains (they still had some graffitti on them when I moved here but not nearly to the extent that you can probably remember) is interesting considering that New York is having all of its past charm wiped from it at a rapid pace. For all of the ethical directness of not hiding the camera, I wish he did, so the people would not be posing or staring.

I also do not like that they added photos to the new edition. The ones added are superfluous in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Double EE you're on fire...

Actually if you look at the HCB America in Passing book and count the photos from NY from 1947...he was a comet! Maybe on par with his 1933-34 years as far as productivity and percentage of success.

Unknown said...

Jeff - gotta own up to a bit of the controversy that has occured over on the "Other Board", as I was the originator of the post intrigued by your comments regarding the question of 35mm and large format, and what it is about these formats that we choose to shoot with. For me, it's a basic question and an appropriate one. I think you answered quite well on this current post - essentially the difference is about a way to approach a subject. It's up to each to distinguish how/what they want to say.

I myself have been wrestling with the choice of format for an upcoming project, and the question I constantly have been asking myself, is do I want that clarity of image, or do I want those fleeting moments? I have been exclusively a 35mm format photographer, but there are certain aspects that a larger format can give me. But, like Davidson's Circus, perhaps the importance for me lies in those fleeting moments that will/should win out as I begin a new project...

And, I am interested, because the question hasn't been answered - so, who is working with 35mm successfully today?

Anonymous said...

Ack! Stupid blog software in a language I cannot read. Anyway, am not a fan of anonymous posting so will post my details:

Don Weber

Anonymous said...


thanks for the comment...

The controversy at the "other board" has to do with simple exposure. I learn about photographers and their work mostly through Books, Galleries, Museums, Friends and outside recommendations.

Now within that world of exposure much can be wittled out simply because of subjectivity. Greatness...what constitutes greatness? When Tod asked me that question I was stumped because in my world I had much trouble thinking of someone that, first, I consider an artist as opposed to a PJ etc...Then the main part...greatness. Frankly all of who i can think of are really good artists that in my mind don't quite make it over the hump into greatness. That is what was so frustrating about the discussion on the other board. It was a bunch of friends in a community recommending other friends as being great and "why couldn't I point to them?". Well sorry if I don't know them. Right?
People working in 35 that have bridged into the art world would be Richard Billingham, whose Ray's a Laugh is a masterpiece. Lise Sarfati is doing good stuff but a bit repetitive. Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller are but I think it's uninteresting. Willie Doherty I think had done 35 for his Extracts from a File book which has its moments. Daido Moriyama. Araki. The person to ask would be Mr. Parr as his feelers run very deep and into all facets of photography. i wonder what he would say...not sure he reads the comments.

For great 35mm in general I'd say the usual suspects that can number into the hundreds. Whether their best work was accomplished a long time ago is another cancellation from the equation though.

Funny that no one has been giving me the huge list that is argued about.

It may be silly (I can see their point obviously)to rely on these few outlets to see what is being done but those are the outlets for most people. I think by the various types of subjects and applications in photography that get covered here at 5B4 can prove that my eyes are open to the landscape.

Who would you point out?

Thanks for reading and for my slight dip into controversy. It doesn't happen here for sure.

Anonymous said...

Analytics = Don Weber. Sorry - my second time "Commenting", thus unfamiliar with how this crap all works.

Interesting list - can't say I am at all in tune with Teller and Tillmans, and it's been a long time since I walked into a gallery and saw work (contemporary, today, modern!) that was 35mm. Now, before all the caterwauling begins, I mean with that dreaded "A" word...

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

I discovered your blog recently, I really have enjoyed it.

This morning I saw your post on the 'other forum', and was quite unhappy by how it descended into mudslinging. Until a few years ago I was a photojournalist, but made a shift in the way I looked at everything. That whole art vs pj is such crap, and always seems to be beaten to death.

A few years ago I came up with my own mantra:

Photojournalism is not an art, but the best photojournalists are artists.

I equate art to being the quality of what one produces, whether one is a chef, race car driver, whatever. It is totally subjective, and there will always be differing opinions. When I work I aspire to create something that meets that criteria. Most times I fall short, but sometimes I get a surprise. That's what keeps me going.

As for format, one need only look at a photographer like Raymond Depardon of Magnum, who works in them all depending on what he wishes to say. I subscribe to his school. Although a member of Magnum, he does not consider himself a photojournalist, making the same transition years ago that I only recently did.

I agree that photographs do not tell stories. They suggest, describe appearance, and at their best make you ask questions, and move you in some way. Everyone will react differently to a photo, depending on their life experience.

Keep up the good stuff here. I just got a new bookshelf my wife bought, and there is plenty of room for some more good photo books, my main vice.

Matt Weber said...

Jeff, Thanks for the response. I still love the book, but you make some good points. I agree that the reprint of Subway didn't add much to the original. And I'll also admit to not liking flash photography at all, ever. Bruce had no choice considering the film he picked. It might have been interesting to see how he would have worked with a Leica & Tri-X, but he was ready for a change and probably needed to...

Also, 300-400 visitors a day ain't that bad. You work real hard, and that will pay off down the road if you can keep it up. Considering there are only so many hours in the day and that you're a very talented "artist", finding the time to shoot, make a living and still have time left over to write, must be very difficult...

One Way Street said...

Hello Jeff - I share your feelings about the disparities in Bruce Davidson's books. We expect a very distinct authorship, whereas in the world of commercial photography such a signature isn't necessarily such an important gesture.

The Subway book is problematic for me in that, as immediately attractive & "well done" as it is, the extremely elaborate lighting & compositions make it more akin to a fashion shoot than a document. On the other hand I find myself seduced by the images, too. When I try to think of representations of NYC from that time, some of the images come to mind - as do movies such as Serpico, The French Connection, The Warriors - fiction can tell truths as well.

I think Davidson probably was as intrusive in a sense with his equipment, his sophisticated compositions, in work such as E. 100th St. - I'm thinking of the nude(s) which appear in that book. Still, the perimeters of the work of E. 100th St. are so succinct, so narrow, that a vision of a neighborhood still emerges above & beyond a virtuoso handling of camera & lights.

The Central Park book could be seen as all "photographic" in that whatever vision may be entailed of the park must conform to the very mannered distortions & proportions of the camera frame.

here's another nominee of someone who still works (somewhat) with 35mm: Nan Goldin

Anonymous said...

There are no links on this site so uhh... what is the "other board" and why does no one mention it by name? Is this some kind of blog etiquette? I am a normal reader. Please assume I know nothing and share complete information so your audience is not confined only to the initiated. Thanks.

p.s. By the way, I think Bruce Davidson's Subway book is perfectly in tune with that era... like disco.

Anonymous said...

Shall remain nameless from me. A bunch of photo vest wearing types. I don't want to dignify it. I's pointless.

Anonymous said...

on East 100th Street: in early 1970's a few negs were stolen from Magnum (by disgruntel employee) because "the subjects were shown as being too dark"
On working 35mm photographers: G. Peress, Jason Eskanazi's Russia (at Leica Gallery), Susan Meiselas, Tom Wood.

Anonymous said...

Wow...did they get them back? Gone for good? And Where were you on that night that they went missing?

I'd add Eskanazi to my list, I hope De-Mo doesn't screw his book up. And not to shake the fragile foundations of the 35mm community too much...Gilles has seemed to be shooting more and more medium format. His work in the recent film influence book that was a part of the Cinematheque Francaise, Image To Come, seems to be a healthy mix of old 35mm and newer 6X7. They aren't dated but I know much of that work because of my past printing history.

One Way Street said...

another photographer who still uses 35mm: Ryan McGinley

Anonymous said...

Thanks one way street, but it was a call for "Greatness" not "coolness".

Ben Krewinkel said...

Subway a bad book. I don't think so. Actually it is a great book, made by a photographer who decided to do something different than he used to do. To compare Davidson with Evans is correct. Evans took photo's in the subway with a candid camera. Davidson did the opposite and the effect is amazing. In my opinion Subway is one of Davidsons greatest books.