When I was a kid, especially for a foreigner living outside the U.S. like me, Harlem was a myth.
New York had the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, 42nd St, and : The Ghetto. A place where nobody would dare go to because of almost certainly never coming back. Some kind of mythological no man’s land, inaccessible to mere mortals (especially white) like me, who could only fantasize about what it was really like. Sure, there was always somebody who knew someone who had been there, but you could’t help being skeptical of such a fabulous tale.
Harlem’s poorest, most dangerous part was called “El Barrio”, mostly Puerto Rican, located around East 100th St.
However dangerous, people lived there, kids went to school and grew up there, and lived like everywhere else, except in extreme poverty.
This is where Bruce Davidson went, almost everyday, in between 1966 to 1968, to photograph the people and how they lived. First with the help and protection of the people who introduced him there, and eventually, on his own.
By giving away prints of his portraits to his subjects, the “picture man” became accepted by the community and was soon allowed inside their apartments, to take more portraits, but also to record the squalid conditions in which they lived, helping them in their fight for better and more human housing conditions.
The almost neutral, and undramatic way in which he chooses to photograph them, makes the photos all the more sincere and authentic, therefore powerful.
They are portraits of all sorts of characters, gang members, but also young couples, large happy families, solitary old persons, children, etc…
In a way, he demystified Harlem, portraying the people of EAST 100TH STREET in such casual manner, he gave them back their dignity, pride, and more simply their normality.