1950s Gangs of New York

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

By Carnegie Hall

Brooklyn Gang on the boardwalk at West Thirty-third Street, Coney Island. Left to right: Junior, Bengie, Lefty., Bruce Davidson, 1959, Original Source: USA. Coney Island, NY. 1959. Brooklyn Gang. On the boardwalk at West Thirty-third Street, Coney Island. Left to right: Junior, Bengie, Lefty.
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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.

Lefty showing his tattoo., Bruce Davidson, 1959, Original Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang. Lefty showing his tattoo.
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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.

Brooklyn Gang (1959) by Bruce DavidsonOriginal Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang.

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."

Woman smoking with friends. (1959) by Bruce DavidsonOriginal Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang.

Greasy young man who has been working on a car. (1959) by Bruce DavidsonOriginal Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang. Greasy young man who has been working on a car.

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

Group sheltering. (1959) by Bruce DavidsonOriginal Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang.

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.

Bar in Brooklyn., Bruce Davidson, 1959, Original Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang.
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Young man in arcade., Bruce Davidson, 1959, Original Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang.
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Five figures in Brooklyn. (1959) by Bruce DavidsonOriginal Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang.

Couple necking on pole at basement party while girl looks on, from Brooklyn Gang. (1957) by Bruce DavidsonOriginal Source: USA. Brooklyn, NY. 1957. Couple necking on pole at basement party while girl looks on, from Brooklyn Gang.

Teenager couple smoking at a kitchen table. (1959) by Bruce DavidsonOriginal Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang. Teenager couple smoking at a kitchen table.

Man in sunglasses smoking., Bruce Davidson, 1959, Original Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang.
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Backseat of a car., Bruce Davidson, 1959, Original Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang. Backseat of a car.
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Man in sunglasses hanging out with friends. (1959) by Bruce DavidsonOriginal Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang.

Coney Island Beach., Bruce Davidson, 1959, Original Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang. Coney Island Beach.
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Kathy fixing her hair in a cigarette machine mirror. (1959) by Bruce DavidsonOriginal Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang. Coney Island. Kathy fixing her hair in a cigarette machine mirror.

On the way home by bus., Bruce Davidson, 1959, Original Source: USA. New York City. 1959. Brooklyn Gang. On the way home by bus.
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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
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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