I know it might not be right around the corner, but if you might decide to spend a weekend in Berlin I strongly recommend visiting Bruce Davidson’s exhibition SUBWAY at CO Berlin. The building alone is already worth an entrance fee. Located in Berlin Mitte the venue is an old Post office from 1876 and if you listen very carefully you still can hear stamps banging on the wooden and chipped desks and the frenetic activity of the Kaiser’s glorious mail service. Honestly no venue could have been more appropriate. Shabby, run down, plaster peeling from the walls and ceilings, in certain areas a stale scent of urine, what better place to showcase an exhibition on New York’s Subway.

Enough of sightseeing however, it is time to get to the point, Bruce Davidson. Best known for his 1959 work on NY’s Brooklyn Gang and the civil rights movement in the sixties, this work explores, starting from the early 1980, the New York Subway in all it’s glory and misery in an extract of 47 prints. New York’s subway wasn’t an easy place at the time, all kind of trafficking, mugging, rough sleeping, overcrowding, noise, graffiti and dirt everywhere. Bruce Davidson just like a speologist, who penetrates the bowels of the earth to analyze what lies beneath our feet, descends the stairways to the bowel of New York to depict a multifaceted humanity. He beautifully describes his feelings and perceptions while on the prowl: “When you are in the Subway, what is beautiful appears bestial, and what is bestial appears beautiful.”

Subway, Bruce Davidson

Subway, Bruce Davidson

And for sure they are beautiful, sometimes scary and questioning like the two Afro Americans “playing?” with a shotgun, but nonetheless beautiful. Once boarding a train the whole palette of human emotions unfold and are on display for the hungry eye of the photographer. The eye of a sociologist, an anthropologist who wishes to understand and break the codes of human behaviour and rites in this place that is, as the curator puts it, “democratic and radically public”. Originally concieved and started as a project in black & white, Bruce Davidson very soon realised that it was much more suited to be shot in colour. Harsh neon light with its greenish glare creating deep shadows, black skin and white skin gleaming in the heat, tattoos and crosses on display, muscles and bullish behaviour, graffiti on every inch of the carriages, carriages like rolling prisons, extravagant fittings and accessories to state diversity as well as belonging, all this has been masterfully depicted by Davidson. The resulting high contrast and saturated photos are the result of a skilful use of a flashgun. Although I think the exhibition is very well curated and I can’t say that I have any favoured photos, one picture in particular attracted my attention. Photographed slightly from above a bunch of “misfits” probably a gang, I couldn’t retrieve from thinking of the film “Warriors” and their ordeal to get back safely, chased and harassed by a violent humanity, to Coney Island the home turf. Looking at these youths arrogant and at the same time fragile poses you cannot do anything than wonder what might have been their fate. Deep down inside you hope the train brought them safely back where ever they belong.

 

Bruce Davidson SUBWAY from the 17/3 – 20/5/12 at CO Berlin Oranienburger Str. 35/36 10117 Berlin

www.co-berlin.com