“The Reverend George A. Weston,” photographed by Margo Davis in 1970
“The Reverend George A. Weston,” photographed by Margo Davis in 1970

Margo Davis, a photographer who shoots under one sky

Name: Margo Davis
Age: 72
Residence: Palo Alto
Profession: Fine art photographer

J.: Over your 50-odd-year career, you’ve taken intimate black-and-white portraits all over the world, of celebrities like Saul Bellow, Maxine Kingston and Ursula K. Le Guin as well as regular people in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America. Just last month, a stunning retrospective was published of your photos from Antigua from 1967 to 1973. A copy was given to Great Britain’s Prince Harry in November when he attended the island’s jubilee anniversary celebration. Why this book now?

Margo Davis: “Antigua” evolved out of a photographic essay I published in 1973 called “Antigua Black: Portrait of an Island People.” In 2003 I was contacted by a curator at the Photographer’s Gallery in London who had been raised in Antigua. She had been given a copy of that original book of photos, and was blown away because she had never seen them before. She organized a show of my work in London, and in 2013 we had a big exhibit in Antigua, which brought so much interest to this work that people were asking for a book.

Your work represents the classic, humanistic, black-and-white film stock photography that is fast disappearing. Many young photographers today wish they could have the kind of artistic experience that you did. How did you find your way to it?

Growing up I loved art, but I went with a French major at Bennington College because I wanted to go to Paris. I always had a nomadic urge. I bought a camera during my junior year abroad at the Sorbonne. The City of Light was my first photographic inspiration. A friend taught me how to develop and print photos. From then on, photography was my passion.

What brought you to Antigua?

After Paris, I didn’t want to go back to Vermont, so I transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. While working toward my degree in French lit, I met Gregson Davis, a native son of Antigua who was getting his Ph.D. in classics. We shared interests in things like civil rights — and calypso music! He invited me home with him to Antigua the summer of 1967, and we married in ’68. When he was offered a teaching job at Stanford University, we moved to San Francisco and spent our summers in Antigua. In San Francisco I was introduced to the photographer Ruth Bernhard. I printed many of my Antigua negatives in her darkroom and she taught me things as only a brilliant photographer and master printer can.

How did you gain access to the people you photographed?

I borrowed the methodology of an ethnographer: participant-observation, becoming part of the fabric of the culture. Being married to an Antiguan and returning there often, I was able to work with this axiom in mind; the importance of getting to really know people.

“Bendal’s Girl with Bucket,” photographed by Margo Davis in 1970
“Bendal’s Girl with Bucket,” photographed by Margo Davis in 1970

Do you think your Jewish background contributed to your ability to do this work?

When my parents decided to move the family to Darien, Connecticut, no one would sell us a house — our family name was Baumgarten. They finally found one in Rowayton, not too far away. We blended in quite well, but my sister and I were the only Jewish kids in the school. In my introduction to “Under One Sky,” a retrospective of my work published by Stanford University Press, I wrote about how I always felt a bit like “the other” in Connecticut, a sense that I was different. I think that was the reason I became interested in cultures other than my own.

You married Gregson Davis at a time when interracial marriage was not as common as it is today. What was the impact of that choice on your life?

In fact, it wasn’t until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional. My decision to marry him caused a rift with my parents for about 10 years, until we had a daughter, then a son, and things started to heal. It was very hard on us. But we are all very hormonally driven in our 20s, in the sense of everything we are passionate about, and we do what we want to do. We divorced in 1980, but my ex is an amazing man.

How did you manage to take so many photographic journeys?

I kept it going by working almost full time at Stanford University all those years, and traveling on vacations. I taught, I was assistant director of Stanford’s Center for Research on Women, and of the Stanford Television Network. But Fridays I worked in the darkroom. That day was sacrosanct.

What’s your next project?

I’ve been photographing people from all over the world who come to New York and adopt it as their city. The working title is “The New Face of New York.” As I’ve written, the act of photographing abbreviates cultural distance … and reminds me that we all live under one sky.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.