Like all of Davis’s best portraits, there is something both casual and immense about these pictures. Davis has the knack of making her subject comfortable enough to reveal a critical existential truth seething beneath the surface — perceptible to the eye, but difficult to articulate. Many of these photographers did not have easy lives. Around the time that Davis took their portraits, the medium — and the rise of color photography in particular — was transitioning into the realm of fine art, and the public was just beginning to revisit the photography of the ’30s and earlier, a reconsideration assisted by galleries and museums devoting more space on their walls to photos, and by writers like Susan Sontag, whose critical essays on the subject, which would eventually be published in 1977 as “On Photography,” began appearing in The New York Review of Books in 1973. Among the group that Davis shot were some of history’s great masters of the medium, who had themselves taught even more great photographers. Lisette Model served as a mentor to Arbus, whose husband told Arbus’s biographer Arthur Lubow that after three lessons with Model, “Diane was a photographer.” Abbott was a close friend of Man Ray in Paris in the 1920s. After she moved back to New York in 1929, she lived for three decades in an apartment with no shower or bathtub. Davis, who would go on to apprentice with Abbott, met her through Model and photographed her in her house in Maine, where she had settled a few years after a lung operation to avoid the pollution of the city. By the time Davis visited her, she was recognized as a trailblazing genius, though her third-floor studio still didn’t have enough water pressure to wash her prints — she rigged a system to wash them in the yard with water from the river behind her house.
In one photograph, Van Der Zee (Davis tells me she simply looked him up in the phone book) holds a violin, emanating a great tenderness that almost — but not quite — obscures the strain in his eyes. It’s clear from his surroundings, from the discarded objects and the old takeout coffee cups on the dresser behind him, that he did not have his life together. In another stands Model, who Davis originally met in San Francisco, when Model was in town to photograph a stripper. She lived in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village that was a couple of little rooms with single light bulbs. In the photo, shot in Davis’s apartment in New York, Model’s cane is almost hiding behind her back. She appears to be looking straight through Davis’s camera in sheer defiance. Vishniac’s apartment was like something out of Freud’s Vienna (he had a successful side career as a professor of a variety of topics, from biology to philosophy to art, and the apartment was crammed with glass cases filled with ancient objects and leather-bound books), but his entire body is weathered by grief. His son, a microbiologist, had recently died during a research trip to Antarctica.Sponsored:
“I did portraits for 20 years,” Davis says, “and the portrait sessions were really intense because people put on a mask, and you have to be so open yourself to let them relax. But in these particular pictures, there is almost nothing phony. They were right there with me and looking at me, not trying to be any other way than they were.”
Source : https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/10/t-magazine/lynn-davis-photographs.html