Bruce Davidson began to photograph at age ten and by the time he was in high school he worked weekends and summers in a camera store and later as an apprentice to a commercial photographer. He was admitted to the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1951 where he was introduced to the work of Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. After graduation he worked for Eastman Kodak but tired of commercial work. He entered the graduate program in design at Yale; he was drafted into the army after one semester. He was posted near Paris and worked in the photo lab.
After his discharge from the army in 1957 Davidson returned to New York and began working for Life. In 1958 he joined Magnum Photos in New York and began a series on Central Park and another on a small circus in New Jersey. In 1959 he photographed a Brooklyn gang called the Jokers. In 1961 he was sent on assignment from Magnum for The New York Times to cover the Freedom Riders, which was the beginning of a documentary project on the Civil Rights movement that lasted through 1965.
After 1964 Davidson's work for Vogue declined but he continued to accept assignments from Esquire. He also worked on personal projects, including a series on Welsh coal miners in 1965 and a study of East 100th Street in Spanish Harlem between 1966 and 1968, which was supported by the first grant for photography from the fledgling National Endowment for the Arts. In the late 1960s and 1970s he worked on film projects.