The true face of the Brooklyn Gang

text: Taka Kawachi

Early Summer/2015

It was said that there were around 1000 young gangsters in the Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods of New York in the late 1950’s. Though they were referred to as gangsters, they were not the group of men who took to wearing black sunglasses and carried pistols, but mostly gatherings of teenagers in areas where outsiders like Italian immigrants and Irish immigrants clashed and fought for territory. It was here that these spirited young people seemed to be become collectively known as gangsters.

In the movies ‘West Side Story’ or ‘East of Eden’ for example, though the characters were portrayed as young men with regent style haircuts, they were exactly like these group of young men of New York. The man who became interested in these people was Bruce Davidson, a documentary photographer still in his mid-20s at the time. He became acquainted with a member of the ‘Jokers’ gang based in Brooklyn and from that day spent a number of months with him where he took photographs of the true everyday lives of his life with his friends and girlfriend. These images were collated into the touching series ‘Brooklyn Gang’.

Within this series there is an image which stood out more than the others and was even used recently as the album cover of ‘Together through life’ by Bob Dylan. The photo collection of the same name was published in 1998 which immediately sold out. It is currently a highly-prized collector’s item.

The daily life of Brooklyn Gangs taken by Bruce Davidson. That moment when friends of the same background connect for that one brief moment. This heartfelt image was used as the album cover for Bob Dylan's 'Together Through Life' (2009). ©Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

From Prospect Park in central Brooklyn to the popular spot of Coney Island at the south-east end of the city, to their favorite local diner ‘Helen’s Candy Store’, the everyday lives of these hot-blooded young people with time on their hands, these unguarded moments were captured in these heartwarming images.

Personally, I believe Bruce Davison to be an incredibly unforgettable photographer and holds special memory for me as the first exhibition I put together in Japan. What Bruce told me at the time I was choosing works for the exhibition, have stayed with me since then.

He told me stories that many of the subjects in ‘Brooklyn Gang’ were products of a broken family which is why they left home, and shortly thereafter had become involved in money trouble and drugs.

Images of unhappy teens whose lives were sadly lost at a young age. That is why this series may seem like a requiem from Bruce Davidson dedicated to those who died too soon.

Those captured in the images lived their lives without any acceptance from their homes, community, church or school. Building resentment and anger which lead them to rebel against adults and society when their fiber for being was hungry for warmth. In their circle of friends of similar unhappy backgrounds, the photos captured the breath for that pure moment to belong somewhere. With half a century flying by, it feels the deep sigh behind the rawness, energy and vigor that emerge from this heartfelt group of photographs in Bruce Davidson’s ‘Brooklyn Gang’, can be heard today.

'Bruce Davidson: Photographs' (1978). A photo collection of 110 images taken the early period of Bruce Davidson's work including 'The Dwarf', 'Brooklyn Gang' etc… It also includes Bruce' Davidson's personal recollections.

Taka Kawachi

Benrido, Overseas Division Director

Taka Kawachi has extensive international experience, having graduated from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco, to then working in New York City as a book editor and curator for 15 years. Returning to Japan in 2011. In 2016, Kawachi published his first book “Art no Iriguchi (Entrance to the Arts) ”.His publications illustrate his experiences of art and photography, and offer readers an opportunity to engage with the history and subjects of both regions from his unique point of view. He is currently the Director of the Overseas Division of Kyoto’s Benrido, working to disseminate the classic and rare photographic process of Collotype, and produced portfolios of Saul Leiter and J.H. Lartigue, etc. His latest publication is “Artists: Masters of Architecture and Design” (Akatsuki Press).

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