Bruce Davidson, the Magnum photographer whose healthy curiosity led him to capture the civil-rights movement in the US, reveals his favourite French joint.
“I can’t cook; I’m from the Midwest so we didn’t know much about cuisine there. But I have always liked French food. My wife Emily and I come for dinner at La Mirabelle frequently. I like the frogs’ legs – when they’re not jumpin’. I got to like them when I was stationed with the military in Paris. One of the soldiers, my friend, said to me one day, ‘There’s a place that specialises in pornography but it also serves very good frogs’ legs.’ So that’s where we’d go… for the frogs’ legs. I have got to know everyone here at La Mirabelle and even if it’s full, they’ll always find a spot for us for dinner. Natalie, our server, is one of the subjects in my latest photography project. It’s simple here and I like that.
I was 10 years old when I was given my first camera. I was very young. Exploring the city was a big deal for me. My mother was a single parent and my brother was very smart. When I was 15, my mother allowed me to take the L Train to Chicago, to Maxwell Street. It was a quite a place; there were dubious people there. My mother said, ‘You can have the afternoon but you have to be back before dark.’ Those formative years were important.
I was in the military, in my twenties, and I was stationed in the Arizona Desert. I had a three-day pass so I hitchhiked into the desert and I met an old man, who was in his nineties, riding a Model T Ford. I waved at him and he stopped. I said, ‘This is an amazing car that you drive.’ He said, ‘Would you like a ride?’ I got in and he invited me to stay over for the weekend. He used to be a miner and he lived in a bunkhouse with a group of others. They stayed after the mine had closed when nobody was mining in that area. This was the desert, the true west, and I took a liking to these people because they were alone. They were just living. There was meagerness to it all, they didn’t really have anyone to help them if they needed help. But they took me in and allowed me to see their life. I felt the mood of age and the mood took over; it was slow, careful, caring. I photographed their silence and their movement and that was the first time I felt that a photograph has something to do with feeling, as much as anything else. Photography, it floats around a little bit, you know?
I’m good at being alone. I have made a couple of films and I enjoy working with people in that case. But for me, right now, if I wanted to walk down Broadway and take pictures, I’d almost have to be alone. I can be with Emily, my wife, who is also a fine photographer, because she’ll see something [that] I’ll miss. And she keeps me from being a bullshit artist.
I was at the Selma March in 1965 and there was a young chap who had smeared his face with white paint and written the word ‘Vote’, in black letters, on his forehead. At first, when I looked at that, I said to myself, ‘It’s too much show.’ I didn’t see a need to do something like that, it seemed like advertising. It felt like an awkward photograph but it was the moment, of what was taking place that day. And that photograph has a new glow for me now. Although I can’t find him, the young man, I understand more about ‘vote’, that word – what it was all about at that time and what it means now.
With [my 1962 book] East 100th Street I paid my dues; I was there every day for a couple of years. I didn’t know quite what I was doing in the beginning but then things took hold. I suppose I didn’t feel like an outsider or insider – I just went slow. One day a woman came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing, honey?’ And I said ‘I’m photographing the ghetto.’ And she said, ‘The ghetto? I call it home.’ And that stayed with me over the years. Somebody I still have a relationship with, who lived on East 100th Street as a child, I photographed her and her parents and now she is a doctor. So many of the people I photographed are coming out of that poverty. They have joyous lives now.
There are a lot of subjects that I’m drawn to. I can’t be artificial; I either feel it or I don’t. So I have to take a chance. I took a chance going into the subway by myself. I took a chance following the Freedom Riders [the subject of his 1961 book]. It’s in me to react to history. But I like to take pictures, it’s as simple as that. I don’t like to get too philosophical about it. Give me a camera to play with and I’m happy. So that’s me, that’s the best of me: when I keep my mouth shut and pick up the camera for this silent endeavour.”
Bruce Davidson was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1933. In 1958, having served in the US military and taken up freelance photography for Life magazine, he became a full member of the Magnum photo agency. His seminal works include Freedom Rides, a series of photographs documenting the US civil-rights movement in 1962, and East 100th Street, which captured the social deprivation of one city block in East Harlem. His landmark book, Subway, published in 1980, captured the underbelly of life on New York’s metro system. His work is represented at major national galleries around the world and in 2007 he was awarded the Gold Medal Lifetime Achievement award by the National Arts Club. He and his wife, photographer Emily Hass Davidson, married in 1967. They have lived in the same Upper West Side apartment for more than 50 years.
La Mirabelle, a French brasserie, opened in New York’s Upper West Side in 1984. Established by Annick and Emmanuel Le Douaron, who had emigrated to the US from Brittany, it is now owned by their daughter Nathalie and son-in-law Loic.
Starter: Frogs’ legs in homemade garlic-and-herb butter
Main course: Herb-crusted rack of lamb with jus and steamed seasonal vegetables
Dessert: Chocolate crêpe with Chantilly cream
To drink: Bottle of Henri Bourgeois La Porte du Caillou sancerre blanc 2017