Desperately Seeking Henri

Bruce Davidson's Magnum Memories

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1933, Bruce Davidson has been snapping the world around him since his early teens. His photographs emotionally confront the struggles of living, from his documentation of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s to his wide-angle shots of commuters on the New York subway. His latest project is Outside/Inside, a three-volume book that surveys his long and fruitful career, to be published by Steidl this May. Here, he remembers his induction into the world of Magnum Photos and meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson.

When I was in college at The Rochester Institute of Technology, there were about 40 or 50 male students, and two women. And I fell in love with one of the two women—although I didn’t know what “love” was at the time…I was quite young. Her name was Joan Fogarty. She looked like Audrey Hepburn, she was absolutely stunning. And I was at the women’s dorm and was sat on the couch and she brought me a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, which is a big book, and we sort of straddled it between our legs. She said to me that Cartier Bresson was her true love. So I went out and bought a Leica and tried to mimic his photographs. To impress the girl. I thought if she loved my photographs, she would love me.  But it didn’t work out like that, she ran away with the English professor. So that was the end of me at the time. I was left with Cartier-Bresson. Later, from 1955 to 1957, I was in the military and in 1956 I was sent to Paris, France. I met a French soldier who invited me to lunch at his mother’s house in Montmartre. After lunch, I was standing on the balcony, and I noticed an elderly woman hovering up Rue Lepic, the stone road. He said, “Oh, that women is interesting because she knew Gauguin and Renoir, and she also is the widow of an impressionist painter, Leon Fauchet.” So he introduced me to her. She lived in the garret above his apartment. That was the start of the Widow of Montmartre series. Every weekend, I would drive in a motor scooter to Paris to be with her. And she was about 92 or 93 at the time. I was 20, you know, I didn’t live with her—although some people were accusing me of it—but anyway, that became a series of photographs that I wanted to show to Henri Cartier-Bresson. I contacted Magnum’s Paris office and the bureau chief there looked at my photographs and said I should meet with Cartier-Bresson so that was arranged. Then later, about a year later, I was back in the United States, no longer in the military, and I saw him on the street. I was on a bus. I jumped off and ran up to him and he said: “Oh, come with me, Magnum is around the corner.” Anyway, so that was Cartier-Bresson, and we became friendly. And then whenever he came to New York, we would see each other and he would look at my work, and give me a critique—and, sometimes, a boot in the behind. At the time in 1958 when I joined Magnum, I was photographing a circus cart, and then the next year, I spent a year with a Brooklyn gang. He was very much aware of the transition from something that was mimicking Cartier-Bresson to something that was fresh and new.  I think that Magnum and Magnum photographers have traditionally come to grips with reality and what’s happening in the world. Certainly Cartier-Bresson reflected aspects of life, Indian life or American life, or life wherever he shot. It reflected a consciousness that was pinned to the bulletin board of history of life and time. And so that’s basically the glue that holds Magnum together, a personal vision that is, a personal vision that reflects the time we lived in.


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