Bruce Davidson at Stephen Bulger Gallery (1026 Queen West), to August 26. 416-504-0575. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Bruce Davidson started taking photographs as a kid in Illinois with a small hand-held camera, winning the Kodak National High School Competition in 1949 at the age of 16.
He went on to become a master of close-quarters photojournalism, relating directly to his subjects and bringing an unprecedented level of intimacy and drama to his work. Davidson's skill as an infiltrator allowed him to capture images of some of the most forbidding corners of New York City, starting with his documentation of East 100th Street, a very tough neighbourhood in the 60s.
The documentary photographs on view at Stephen Bulger are from five major portfolios dating from 1959 to 1992: Brooklyn Gang, East 100th Street, Time Of Change, Subway and Central Park.
Brooklyn Gang is a study of classic 50s street toughs, featuring girls primping around boys who slouch and look romantically alienated, while his portraits of life on East 100th Street make up a sober document of inner-city poverty.
What's amazing is that the work is in no way dated: Davidson's images have an immediacy that still reads as contemporary after 40-odd years.
Time Of Change captures the flowering of the Nation of Islam movement in the early 60s, showing the first Malcolm X street rallies, including a nattily dressed but stoic disciple of Elijah Muhammad being dragged away by police.
Subway makes the jump to colour and offers the intense claustrophobia and vivid theatrics of the Manhattan subway in the gangsta 80s, as read through the graffiti-covered surfaces and sharply codified language of bodies and faces.
Central Park is a lucid study of both idealized public space and social and ethnic contrasts. Davidson's photo of a young Latino couple smooching behind a tree as white uptown newlyweds glide by in tux and gown is a classic.
Davidson is obviously a good communicator. The openness and outright vulnerability of his subjects in each image attest to this.
But what's most inspiring is the way the human conflict and contrast on view here never cross over into sensationalism. These are portraits that put the artist's skill at the service of a thoughtful and nuanced intimacy, not exploitation.