Bruce Davidson and Identifying Myself

This is one of those posts that probably won’t make any sense, even if I wrote it, sat on it and re-wrote it a dozen times. Sorry, sometimes that’s the way it is …

Backstage before the holiday ballet in Centreville, Virginia, December 1992. (Photo/Mark E. Johnson)

The New York Times Lens blog has an entry up on Bruce Davidson that promotes his new, three volume book set. Davidson is one of those people who my peers talk about but I’ve never looked that deeply into. (There are a lot of people like that, I’m afraid to say – I have years of work left to catch up to my friends.) The interview with him is … well … weird.

I don’t know him well enough to know if this is normal or not, but it’s just pretty disjointed overall. But it got me thinking about what kind of “photographer” I have been, what I am and what I’d like to be.

Traditionally, I always labeled myself as a photojournalist – I told the story of today, showed you what happened and, maybe, on a good day, I even put it in context and gave you some deeper meaning. At the very least, I tried to build a connection between my subjects and my readers, help one understand the other. With that understanding came knowledge about our shared community and the ability to make decisions, to make changes.

But that understanding was always about the right now. Much of my work, while I’d like to think it had a daily impact, wasn’t designed to be studied years later for an understanding of what my communities were like while I was there.

What I would like to become, I think, is more of a documentary photographer – a term I privately despised for many years because I didn’t really understand it until the last decade or so. The decade, not coincidentally, that I moved away from event driven photojournalism. I’ve never had a great working definition of “documentary photography” which has been one of the things I’ve wrestled with. Davidson hints at what it may be, for me, when he says, “I just photograph the human condition as I find it. It can be serious. It can also be ironic or humorous.” That’s getting close to it, but that’s not it just yet.

Which leaves the question of what am I now? Probably closer to the documentary side than the pure photojournalist, I suppose. More of what I’m attracted to shooting is about my community on a daily basis, less about the transformational events that go on within it. Although I do still like the event-oriented assignments, they are fewer and further between.

And now I could go wandering off into my daily struggles to document my life and how, while I’m better equipped now than I’ve ever been, I don’t feel like I have a camera that works for me. But I’ll save that for another post.

Mark E. Johnson

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