“That was Brick Lane in 2011, in January. I just finished degree and was going to my commencement ceremony and was showing my mom Brick Lane when I saw these guys and thought they were awesome. So, I asked to take their photo.”
“That was in Toronto, on Queen Street, where I was talking to this guy who was playing music and some other guy was being racist towards him. I told him to lay off and he finally left, so then we starting talking. I asked him play a song and took some photos. It’s one of my favourite pictures.”
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Show Cliff Davidson any of his thousands of photos and he will tell you how it came to be.
The Sociology PhD candidate has been sharing his views of the urban landscape for more than a decade now through photography publications and exhibitions in the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands and Canada. Even still, the self-defined ‘urban street photographer’ doesn’t necessarily see himself as ‘an artist.’
In fact, he pushes back from the word.
“I’m a photographer,” he said. “It’s a strange thing for me because I don’t treat it as if I’m an artist. I know I can do art well, but I’m very staid and controlled in how I do things. As an artist, you can manipulate; I usually just tell them I like to take pictures of people.
“I like to capture images. I try to do it as much as possible ‘in camera.’ I do my own film developing and scanning. I guess there is some minor manipulation. But the more I can do in the camera, the less time I have to spend on my computer, which is amazing, because then I can take more pictures.”
At age 7, Davidson received an Olympus Trip MD 2 as a gift from his brother. Thinking it was “cool,” he jumped in and started taking pictures with it. The skill seemed to come naturally to him.
He continued to follow the passion over the years, even as he pursued postsecondary education by earning degrees from Humber College, York University, the University of London (U.K.) and Western.
Today, with academics taking up the majority of his time, Davidson still manages to keep a camera on hand, as well as lead photography classes in the Toronto area. He has worked with the Toronto Urban Photography Festival, as well as shown his work at multiple exhibitions.
His first show, Consumption/Desctruction, was shown in Middelburg, The Netherlands, as part of a PhoRA (photography club of Roosevelt Academy) exhibition entitled Provocations. His work was featured as part of Roosevelt’s Culture Week and held at Revolution Gallery in Middelburg. The Provocations exhibition was also spotlighted on local Dutch television station TV Walcheren. After that, his works went on display across London, including the Linear House Gallery, Museum of London and Shop 14 Truman Brewery.
In addition to his projects like Portraits of Brick Lane, Umbrellas and Street Portraits Black and White, there is his urban photography, composed in both black and white and in colour.
All projects lend themselves to Davidson’s ultimate goal – telling stories.
“The biggest part is nowadays people are worried about how to technically take a good photo,” he said. “Sure, you have to have photos that are good, but you also have to have a story to go with it. Let your photos tell stories.”
Since returning from England, Davidson feels his photography has regressed since he is “not particularly comfortable” taking pictures of people in London (Ont.) yet.
“The vibe is just different,” he said. “I don’t like to take photos of vulnerable populations, such as homeless people. They are easy targets for so many. When I was in London (U.K.), it was much easier because everyone is so open to being on camera. There are cameras everywhere there.”
Davidson always asks permission of his subjects before taking any photos. And when using a twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera – a retro camera usually viewed from just above waist level – it’s an easy icebreaker in meeting new people.
“When you use a TLR, which everyone notices, it creates a conversation,” Davidson said. “I let them look through it, and then I ask if they mind if I take a picture.”
The throwback TLR isn’t an antiquated oddball in his collection. In fact, of his 10 cameras, only one is digital.
“We start relying too much on the technology to take our pictures as opposed to relying on ourselves to do it,” said the 36-year-old. “When I shoot analog, I do what a lot of people tell you not to do – I take just one picture. I take a single shot.
“It’s like most things, where is that fine line between too much and not enough? Photographs are how we capture our past, a slice of a time, that single moment. Because it is one point, you begin examining it and, more and more, layers begin to emerge – all this nuance. If we start taking so many pictures at one time is there really any nuance between them.”