A United Kingdom: Bruce Davidson’s Portrait of 1960s Britain

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Bruce Davidson Street Photography Britain 1960s
Wales, 1965© Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

The latest exhibition of the American photographer’s work captures a Britain on the brink of change

Sitting in the library of his Manhattan home, photographer Bruce Davidson, now 86, joyously recalls a two-month trip to the United Kingdom on assignment for Queen magazine in the 1960s. “They gave me carte blanche because Cornell Capa told them, ‘If you want to get a beautiful set of pictures, let him take off. You will be surprised.’ And that’s what I did,” Davidson says.

That autumn, Davidson crossed the nation, visiting London, the south coast and Scotland to create a portrait of Britain as it was finally beginning to recover from the traumas of war and decades of austerity. In his travels, Davidson found areas of the country that had remained untouched since the 1930s, which stood in profound contrast to a newly emerging teenage culture that would soon take the globe by storm.

The new exhibition, Bruce Davidson: A United Kingdom, opening this month at Huxley-Parlour, London, showcases works from this series, first published as Seeing Ourselves as an American Sees Us: A Picture Essay on Britain on April 12, 1961. “I was free to encounter life,” Davidson says. “I was open and didn’t have any agenda. There was a certain sense of sky and fog, of another place. That’s why those pictures are delicate – and I was delicate too. “

As a young man of 27, with two years as a Magnum photographer under his belt, Davidson secured an advertising job in London encouraging the public to ‘Drink a pint of milk a day’. With the money he earned, Davidson purchased a Hillman Minx convertible with red patent leather seats. It was a zippy little number he used to drive around London, while living on fudge, bananas, and milk. “After a while I got tired of that so I went back on trains to villages,” he recalls. “It was all done under the eye of someone who wants to explore.”

Following his instinct, Davidson created a portrait of the UK at a turning point, as the traditional ways of life were giving way to the modern world. The exhibition also features work made in the mining town of Cwmcarn, Wales, in 1965, which Davidson first visited in the 1950s while serving in the US Army. Stationed outside of Paris, he had asked a Welsh sergeant where he would send his worst enemy. The answer: Cwmcarn.

When Davidson received a commission to photograph Caernarfon Castle, he decided to take a trip and spend more time in the town. “[Magnum photographer] Philip Jones Griffiths, who was Welsh, he teamed me up with a 92-year-old Welsh poet who opened doors for me,” Davidson recalls. “It was a miserable time for anybody who had a family because they closed the mines.”

Taken together, Davidson’s photographs offer a powerful portrait of the UK as it fought its way back from the edge, coming to terms with the way of life it once knew coming to an end and allowing a new era to slowly emerge. “The British are very resilient,” Davidson says, a statement as true now as it was then. 

Davidson acknowledges he himself had changed during those years, his experiences chronicling the American Civil Rights Movement giving him more understanding and awareness of worlds outside his own. “If I take a picture, I have to account for it. I have opened something to someone’s reality,” he says. “Basically, I am a kid with a camera. That was the best part of me. When I was young, I was so focused on where I was going and what I was doing. The search finds you if you stay open and observe what is going on.” 

Bruce Davidson: A United Kingdom is on view at Huxley-Parlour Gallery, London from January 17 until March 14, 2020.