One day not long ago, I met the photographer Jack Davison at a café in Brooklyn, during the slow hours of the afternoon. He had been beckoned Stateside from his home in London to do a commercial shoot for Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s luxury fashion line, the Row, but he had spent that day wandering the streets of Chinatown, where, he informed me, he took a lot of great pictures of hands. He clicked through some of the images on a palm-size point-and-shoot digital camera, which has been his instrument of choice lately. He told me that, because of the machine’s unobtrusiveness, the subjects he’s hired to photograph sometimes think he’s an assistant: “They are, like, ‘When is the actual photographer and the camera coming?’ ”
The misconception might also have something to do with Davison’s startling youth. Twenty-eight years old, baby-faced and affable, he has been shooting editorial work for the likes of the Times Magazine, British Vogue, and various cultish brands (Craig Green, Margaret Howell) since he was barely out of college; his first monograph, titled simply “Photographs,” was released in May. And his work, with its moody chiaroscuro, vintage Kodachrome palette, and Mannerist emotionality, seems to have been ripped out of the pages of glossy magazines from an era when Irving Penn and Richard Avedon were still huddled underneath their dark cloths, and Ralph Gibson and Saul Leiter still prowled the streets.
This anachronistic flavor, Davison explained, is mostly due to his unorthodox photographic education. Raised in rural Essex, in the southeast of England, Davison began making pictures at the age of fifteen. “I just kind of co-opted the family camera, which was a tiny point-and-shoot, and was just, like, ‘I’ll be doing the family photos from now on,’ ” he said. He honed his eye by following his taste, wicking vintage images off of the Internet and into file folders that he keeps on his desktop to this day. They include the canonical photographers of the golden age of editorial photography, though their famous names meant nothing to him at the time. “I would love all those pictures, and I’d look for them in new magazines and not find them anywhere,” he said.
Critics often make a point of the fact that Davison is self-taught—in college, he studied English literature. But he noted that the characterization is not strictly true. As a teen-ager, through the image-sharing site Flickr, he found a mentor, a street photographer named Brett Walker, who ran a ragtag salon out of his London apartment. “I went down and I started to get my ass kicked,” Davison recalled. “Because he was, like, ‘This is shit, this is wrong.’ ” Walker, too, had been a precociously successful professional, and he also gravitated to the work of old-school picture-makers, such as Man Ray. He has been Davison’s lodestar for the past decade, and receives an effusive dedication in the back of his book.
But, whereas Walker’s work skews toward hard-edged realism, Davison’s has drifted into the realm of dreams. A man’s rain-spattered back becomes a looming edifice that we seem beckoned to scale. A hovering dot painted on an alley wall appears transformed into a luminous moon, propped up by a rusted wire trellis and cradled by a shadow hand, and a wild-eyed dog, all Tic Tac white teeth and blurred fur, is a living incarnation of our rapacious anxieties. But, just as in dreams, things are not always what they seem. “This one, which looks terrifying,” Davison said, of the dog picture, “is just a Labrador trying to eat ham.”