Bruce Davidson: Los Angeles 1964

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USA. Los Angeles. 1964.© Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos/Steidl

The acclaimed photographer's rejected project is finally published

Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson is best known for capturing people in social adversity. In the 1960s he documented the Freedom Riders, whose famous bus journeys protested racial segregation; later he spent two years befriending and photographing people in a brutally poor Harlem block on East 100th Street; and in the 1970s his flash shone a light on the vibrant colours of the then unsafe underworld of the New York subway.

In 1964 Esquire sent him west to photograph Los Angeles, in a series of images that has only just been published by Steidl, titled Los Angeles 1964. Without a strict memo or subject, Davidson wandered the streets, an Illinois-born New Yorker in the foreign world of the desert city. The work that Davidson brought back to Esquire was different to what they had expected. “The editor did not understand the pictures at all,” he says. “He gave them back to me and they stayed in my drawer until 1978.” 

As he explored the city, Davidson’s position as a stranger gave him an uninvolved, often critical gaze. The experience, he has said, was “dull and sort of lonesome” and the city was a “cultural desert with acrid air, bumper-to-bumper traffic, tall palms, and seedy Hollywood types.”

“I stood there ready with my Leica, aware of my shadow on the pavement. I walked up to strangers, framed, focused, and in a split second of alienations and cynicism, pressed the shutter button. Suddenly I had an awakening that led me to another level of visual understanding.”

His reaction to the place is clear from the air of the absurd that runs through the black-and-white photographs. He says, “when I landed at L.A. International Airport I noticed giant palm trees growing in the parking lot. I ordered a hamburger through a microphone speaker in a drive-in called Tiny Naylor’s. The freeways were blank and brilliant, chromium-plated bumpers reflected the Pacific Ocean, but the air quality was said to be bad. People looking like mannequins seemed at peace on the Sunset Strip while others were euphoric as they watered the desert.”

The presence of indomitable nature in the city inspired him to return many years later, climbing up behind the Hollywood sign and down beneath the highways to find it, like the people of the subway or East 100th Street, unbeaten by adversity. In 2013 Davidson held an exhibition of this more recent work, at the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica.

"Los Angeles is often perceived as a place of endless freeways and the grids of busy streets, but it is also a place of exotic and even erotic plant life that thrives in an unlikely habitat," he says. "In this quest, I am searching for the confluence of man and nature that interact and struggle to live together in the bright sunshine that is abundant in the city of angels.”