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HC, 39 x 31 cm., 2nd edition.
He enjoys comparing himself to things, animate and inanimate. For most of his photographing life — which began at the age of 10 in Oak Park, Ill., after his mother built him a darkroom in the basement — he was, as he says, “a coyote, a wolf,” prowling for the perfect picture in a succession of circumscribed worlds he found and entered: tent circuses, Brooklyn gangs, East Harlem tenements, Jewish cafeterias, the civil-rights-era South.
Mr. Davidson is 76 now, a vigorous, round-faced man given to wearing heavy work shirts and boots that lend him the appearance of a carpenter. And as contemplative landscape photography increasingly dominates his time, he describes himself these days as being more like a plant. “Plants kind of speak to me, and trees, particularly palm trees,” he said, smiling as he listened to himself. “Birds less so, but I’m getting very interested in them too.”
Another description, especially now, might be heavyweight. This month the German art-book publisher Steidl will issue a door-stopping three-volume retrospective of Mr. Davidson’s work, books for which he painstakingly reprinted thousands of images from his archives, eventually choosing more than 800 pictures, some never seen before. The publication coincides with two Manhattan exhibitions. One, at the Howard Greenberg Gallery on East 57th Street, recreates a sequence of pictures chosen by the curator John Szarkowski for the 1970 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Mr. Davidson’s “East 100th Street” series, an unflinching — and hotly debated in the context of the times — examination of urban poverty and perseverance in the late ’60s.
The other show, at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in Chelsea, surveys Mr. Davidson’s career, but the gallery has decided to do so in an elliptical and unusual way: by blowing up a dozen or so of his images to contemporary-photography proportions, big 30-by-40-inch prints, some of which — like a 1958 picture of a circus dwarf named Jimmy Armstrong — take on a vaporous Seurat-like ethereality at that size.
“I wasn’t sure about it at first,” Mr. Davidson said one afternoon, watching an assistant with a paintbrush carefully touching up the poster-size circus print, which blanketed a big swath of his dining-room table. “I didn’t want them blown up just for the sake of blowing them up, for size. But now I look at them as completely different pictures, accomplishing something that a smaller print doesn’t do.”
From almost the beginning of his career Mr. Davidson’s pictures have accomplished a lot. He was among the leaders of a loose-knit new wave of photographers — including Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyon, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus — who emerged in the early 1960s with the desire to tell stories that didn’t fit neatly, and often didn’t fit at all, into the art world or into the magazine picture-essay tradition.
Mr. Davidson’s work has always been marked by a quiet sympathy that balances even his more caustic visions — gaudy Los Angeles, waitresses in a topless restaurant, the dead-end members of a Brooklyn gang called the Jokers — and by a sophisticated, undramatic sense of form. The critic Michael Brenson, writing in 1982 in The New York Times about a highly regarded series of pictures taken in the subway, a rare foray into color for Mr. Davidson, called his brand of realism “almost novelistic in its multilayered ambition.”
The artist’s life has not been easy. For most of his career, even after becoming a marquee member of the Magnum photo collective, Mr. Davidson paid the bills mostly by shooting for corporate annual reports or other business publications, work he liked better than magazine assignments “because it really kept me out in the world, seeing how things worked.” For a short time in the early 1960s he did fashion work for Vogue magazine, but it never kept his interest.
“All I cared about was, ‘Can I make enough money here to pay for my livelihood, so I can get back out on the streets and shoot what I want?’ ” he recalled.
But the life has also paid him back richly in experience. His first daughter was conceived (as his wife, her mother, smirkingly confirmed, sitting at their kitchen table) in Death Valley, Calif., while Mr. Davidson was taking pictures on the set of Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point.” He can talk about shooting Marilyn Monroe in 1960, or about Richard Avedon and André Kertesz helping him teach workshops at his Greenwich Village loft. Or about when Arbus took him to Atlantic City for a burlesque show, or the time he kept Isaac Bashevis Singer’s parakeet. (Mr. Singer was a friend and a neighbor in the Belnord, Mr. Davidson’s building, and Mr. Davidson made a short film about him in 1972.)