When Bruce Davidson arrived to East 100th Street Harlem with his camera in 1966 and said that he wanted to record life on the block, the local citizens’ committee was apprehensive. Most of the buildings in the area had been built between 1880s and 1910s, and had not be restored since the 1930s. Back in the 1950s, this block — bounded by First and Second Avenues and 100th and 101st Streets — was known as one of the worst parts of New York City.
Davidson had first noticed the area back in the 1950s, when he stayed with his parents in upstate New York and commuted into town to work as an assistant in Eastman Kodak. “From the window of the train, I could see into the windows of the buildings in East Harlem, catching momentary glimpses of life in those dwellings. Even then, I wanted to get behind those brick walls and to encounter the invisible.”
By the time Davidson received a grant from the US National Endowment for the Arts to document the area, East 100th Street was slowly improving, but the committee still worried about letting a white man taking pictures in a predominately African-American community. The committee allowed him take one picture of his choice, before they decide whether to allow him. Davidson asked for the largest family on the block. The committee identified a family of 10. It took him two weeks to get them all together in the same place for a photo. The committee was suitably impressed with the results that he was allowed to begin his project. .
For two years, Davidson went to the block, standing on sidewalks, knocking on doors, asking permission to photograph people and places. He paid nearly daily visits, slowly gaining the trust of area residents. He wandered around with an old-fashioned large format camera with tripod, bellows and black focusing cloth. The children called him the “picture man”. He worked slowly, rarely taking more than ten pictures in a day, often waiting five or ten minutes so that, his subjects could compose themselves as they wished in front of his camera. He also asked his subjects for written permission to publish their pictures.
When the photos were published first in the Sunday Times Magazine (April 21, 1968) and later as a book (1970), the public reception was divided. Some said he made Harlem look ‘bad’ while others said he didn’t reflect the reality by not making it look bad enough. Activists used Davidson’s photos to advocate for change and get funding for renovation of some tenements. Many of Davidson’s subjects, however, fared worse. A young junkie he photographed was shot to death in the course of a holdup. A pregnant woman who posed in the nude was jailed for homicide. Of a couple photographed, the husband was later in jail, and the wife dead of a heroin overdose.