1950s Gangs of New York

Carnegie Hall

Photographer Bruce Davidson investigates a teenage gang in Brooklyn, New York, capturing the spirit of post-war youth culture that inspired the rival gangs of West Side Story

In 1959, photographer Bruce Davidson read about the teenage gangs of New York City and connected with a social worker to make initial contact with a gang in Brooklyn called “The Jokers.” For several months during the spring of that year, Davidson became a daily observer and photographer of this alienated youth culture.

Davidson's camera records both the particular details of the gang members' lives, such as the tattoos, sunglasses and slicked-back hair that signify their toughness, and a more general sense of their vulnerability and vitality.

The Fifties are often considered passive and pale by our standards of urban reality, but Davidson's photographs prove otherwise, showing images of tough people, tough lives, tough lovers, all embodying 1950s "cool."

Taken as a whole, the powerful and poignant images of Brooklyn Gang form a complex portrait of longing, anxiety, and alienation.

These photographs of Brooklyn gangs, Davidson's first photographic project, were undertaken when he was not much older than the boys depicted in the work.

Credits: Story

Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photos

Brooklyn Gang, the complete series, includes more than 70 images. It has been excerpted frequently in collections, and was published as a whole in a 1998 edition by Twin Palms Publishers. The monograph, which includes nearly 70 sheet-fed gravure plates, concludes with a short recollection by the photographer and a lengthier interview with Bengie, a surviving gang member, who is now a drug counselor.

Bruce Davidson (b. 1933) has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1958. His work can be viewed at magnumphotos.com/brucedavidson, including additional images from the series Brooklyn Gang.

Credits: All media
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