Bruce Davidson. In 1959 he read about the teenage gangs of New York City, more precisely about a series of gang rumbles in the Prospect Park area. Connecting with a social worker to make initial contact with a gang called the Jokers, Davidson became a daily observer and photographer of this alienated youth culture.
In 1999, nearly 70 of the photographs Bruce Davidson took of the Jokers gang were compiled into a book titled Brooklyn Gang published by Twin Palms Pub, beautifully designed and reproduced using the sheet fed gravure method. With a limited edition of 4000 copies it remains the only comprehensive photographs about a youth gang from NYC in the 1950s.
Brooklyn Gang is a document of inner-city youth culture at a time before the term was even coined. It is also a requiem for a bunch of Italian-American kids who bonded and, for a time, found a kind of community that had been denied them elsewhere; at home, in the church, at school.
Davidson’s black-and-white images are cool and evocative. The gang shared a working-class, Italian-Catholic background, but look like they have walked straight off the set of West Side Story. The girls are timelessly hip in tight pants and white tops, with pinned-up piles of jet black or peroxide blonde hair. The male dress style is Italian hipster meets American rockabilly, Sinatra meets Elvis. The threads are sharp, the hairstyles tall and quiffed, and the attitude, as caught by Davidson’s camera, is either defiant or aloof to the point of disinterested.
Taking some time to get to know them, he gained their trust and they allowed him to take photographs of them hanging out in the streets, back alleys, Coney Island and the candy store. For 11 months Davidson took photographs of the boys and girls in the Jokers gang and later said that he was in fear of the unpredictable and violent members of the gang.
“I met a group of teenagers called the Jokers. I was 25 and they were about 16. I could easily have been taken for one of them. In time they allowed me to witness their fear, depression and anger. I soon realised that I, too, was feeling their pain. In staying close to them, I uncovered my own feelings of failure, frustration and rage.” -Bruce Davidson.
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