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Interview with Bruce Gilden
In Your Face
Brooklyn-born photographer Bruce Gilden (1948) gets right in your face. Famous for his black and white street photography taken with a flash at arm’s length from his subjects, Gilden has unapologetically pursued photography that tries to bare souls, ready or not. His latest work, Face, to be released as a book from Dewi Lewis Publishing in August, gets even closer – and this time, in colour. Bruce Gilden speaks here with Katherine Oktober Matthews about finding yourself in other people, demanding more of your photos and yourself, and the limitations of getting older as a street photographer.
You’ve got a new book coming, Face – tell us about it. What are these faces?
For years and years, I always have admired the police mug shot pictures. I’m very slow at doing things that I want to do, so it probably took 20 or 30 years, but then all of a sudden I’m in Miami working with Magnum’s Postcards From America project, and they have this camera called the Leica S, which is a digital midsize camera, so I did a portrait and I really liked it – in colour. I hadn’t worked in colour since I was maybe 19 years old and now I’m 68 (at that time maybe 65 or 66). I started before that doing faces in black and white for the Middlesex project that I did, for Timothy Prus at the Archive of Modern Conflict, but I was using a Nikon and I think we were using a 35mm lens, so the pictures weren’t as tightly framed. These are tightly framed, and they’re very, very strong.
You know, I’m photographing people that are not only left behind in most cases, but they’re actually invisible because people don’t want to see them. And the pictures are very elegant, they’re formed well and they’re meant to be seen very large, like 40×60 inches, 50×70. What’s good about the camera and the portraits is that, even if the details sometimes are very strong, they don’t overwhelm the picture, they fit like parts of the puzzle.
What is it you like about photographing these ‘invisible people’?
I’ve always liked the underdog, people who aren’t on top of the heap. And not all the pictures are of underdogs, but part of the book is pictures I did for a commission in the Midlands, for a group called Multistory. There is a lot of poverty in the Midlands, because that’s where the major industry was at the time of the industrial revolution. Now most of it has dried up so the people don’t have work and a lot of them are angry. I found this area very interesting, because all the world is becoming similar but in this place people still have their individuality. In New York, in London, in Dublin, and Amsterdam I’m sure, everything is becoming gentrified, and they’re forcing all the people who don’t have a lot of money out of the prime spots. As a matter of fact, I’m just bought out of my rent-stabilized apartment in Soho, New York. I mean, I didn’t have to go, but it’s about time to go and it’s difficult because I’ve lived here in this place since 1979.
So, I identify with these people in my pictures, because I’m actually photographing myself. The people in my pictures interest me. I like them, and they motivate me. Whereas if I have to do corporate types, which I photograph for jobs, I have no interest in them – visually, or any other way.
What is it that you see in a person’s face that identifies them to you as an underdog?
Well, you just feel it. You see it and you feel it. For example, I did a lot of the work published in the book at state fairs thanks to a Guggenheim fellowship which allowed me to go to about five or six different state fairs in America last year. The reason I chose state fairs is because a lot of people attend them, and the more people you see in a place, the more chances you have of seeing faces that are interesting. But having said that, I would say that I only take maybe anywhere from 5-15 pictures a day. I don’t shoot a lot.
If you’re actually photographing yourself, as you said, and all these faces are actually portraits of Bruce Gilden… what do we know about him? What’s he like?
I think he’s baring their souls. That’s what I like in photography. There are several people who do portraits in New York but they let the people perform for them. I don’t like that. I’m the one who’s the director. I’m being truthful, ok? I like intensity. I like to see their soul. I show my soul – I’m blunt. You see me, you talk to me – you’ll know who I am. You’ll know what I like, you’ll know what I don’t like. I’m very direct. I’m not passive aggressive, and I don’t like people that much who are passive aggressive. What you see is what you get. Some people can deal with it, other people can’t. Yeah, I spend a lot of time at home with my three cats, I read a lot, I watch sports, but, look, I’m fortunate in that I always knew what I wanted to photograph. I always liked the dark side of life. I like things that aren’t considered average.
Do you think of the things you’re photographing as ‘dark’?
The world isn’t great, ok? Look what’s going on in the world. from the environment, we’re polluting the world, to terrorism, to everything. Then you have all the governments and the politicians who are all full of shit, they never tell the truth, they’re always promoting what the best deal is for themselves… I mean, come on! So, my pictures are showing that there are problems in this world. I think that the only way you can solve a problem is by confronting it. I’m an optimist.
What are you optimistic about?
Well, I’m always optimistic that I can do good pictures. That you put me in a situation and I’ll solve the problem, whatever it is – I don’t mean the world’s problems, I’m talking about my problems. I’m typically… well, all artists are selfish, but I don’t think I’m extremely selfish. I do care about people. To a certain extent. But I also believe that God helps those who help themselves. That may be a little hard as a statement, don’t take it in the wrong context, ok? Because I believe that there are limits, but I think that you have to realize what you’re strong in and what you’re weak in, and you have to go to your strengths.
Considering you have such direct contact with people through your photography, what do you think has changed with people over time?
I’d say that, visually, people are becoming more similar. You have more global companies, whether it’s Starbucks, or jeans companies, whatever. We’re losing our individuality. Things are becoming sanitized. I live in a nice area, and I lived in this apartment 36 years and, now that I’m leaving, when I walk out, I notice things: the buildings are all clean now. It looks like a toy town. I’m not advocating for filth but I lived here in the early ‘80s, late ‘70s, and at that time New York was pretty messy. There were homeless people all over the place, it was dirty, cars were broken into all the time, but it had a rawness and a quality of life. Now, all the life is being sucked out of it. You see the people with the fancy cars, the fancy dogs, they have no manners, they’re on their cell phone, they knock into you, they don’t care…
The buildings are so clean it looks like the place has been bombed and they rebuilt it. All the character is going – I mean, it’s nice, it’s safer, you have more restaurants, but it’s flat! It’s not charming, it doesn’t inspire creativity.
In terms of your candid shots, there are videos that show your way of working – roaming the streets, spotting someone you want to photograph and then striking a quick pose with your camera in one hand and flash in the other and taking a picture right in their faces. Is that characteristic, or do you sometimes stop and chat with people, have more of an interaction with them?
Well, look, the idea of doing pictures is not to have arguments, ok? For all the work I’ve done and all the pictures I’ve taken, I’ve had very few confrontations or altercations, because I’m comfortable in what I do. I’m not photographing the person because I’m going to make money, I’m not photographing the person to show that they’re great or they’re bad. They’re part of the thing that I’m interested in. So, if I’m comfortable, I can make jokes with them, even on the candids, so that helps put people at ease, and also I think most people don’t mind being photographed. It’s just the person who does mind that you have a problem with.
But also, for example, if some people are dealing drugs on the street, I’m not there to photograph them. I stay away from that. I try to stay away from police, too. You know, you can bring things on you… There are plenty of things I don’t photograph, because I know they can be aggravation. Of course, you have to be sneaky as a photographer, you can’t tell ‘em, “oh here I’m coming, here’s my camera”… I’m gonna take the picture. I think it works but I own up to what I do.
And I’m also comfortable doing what I do. People feel when you’re comfortable. Cause when you’re not comfortable and you’re stressed and you feel like you’re doing something wrong, people feel that also. For example, years ago I was in Lima, Peru, and I walked on the street in a barrio. There was no one around so I got off the street, because I felt that maybe ten minutes later they’d be down on me with knives and put ‘em to my neck. You have to feel this, you know? It’s a smell, a scent. If you know the street, you feel these things. You have to be alert. You can’t be somewhere else, you have to be there. The street is great, but also sometimes can be unforgiving.
I read something that you saidyou were riffing on Capa’s famous quote “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” and your version was, “The older I get, the closer I get.” Do you think you’re close enough, or do you have the ambition to get even closer?
Well, I don’t know, only time will tell. Those things come in increments. I get close because I try to get close to the soul of the people in my pictures, but it also might be because I don’t respect people who use a telephoto lens and take a picture from across the street. That’s what I mean about ‘you have to be sneaky to get the picture’.
My old photographs I would say were like stage sets: the viewer looks at it and it’s like looking at something on the stage, from outside. Whereas now, I put the viewer at the centre. He becomes part of the picture. And these portraits are even closer. They’re as close as I’ve been. The only way I could get closer is if I become abstract in my photography. And I don’t think I’ll do that. Somebody can do it, but it’s not ‘me’, cause then It would be mostly about form. A good photograph for me works well across the frame and also has a strong emotional content. Once I stop the faces, I have to do something else, so I’ll try something else. We’ll see.
What’s the biggest reward for you of this current style of photography, or this phase you’re in now?
Well, I tell you, this may be my best photography ever. It’s very strong, and the pictures have gotten stronger. In other words, when I started doing it, I was really fascinated and I thought I was doing well, but as I’ve gone on, it’s gotten more intense and stronger, cause now I’m more demanding.
Demanding of yourself or of the pictures?
Of the pictures. I’m always demanding of myself. Cause as you do things, you learn. I’ve stopped doing candid photography in New York City, because I was getting too many popped hamstrings lunging at people. As you’re older, your body isn’t as loose as it was when you were younger, and you have to make more unnatural movements, so sometimes things break. And I just figured I’m repeating myself, so what’s the sense?
I’ve been working on this project about two years, and I saw that the pictures are getting stronger, so I’m more demanding of what’s good. But that’s true with any essay. For example, if I go to Haiti. I was there 22 times in my life, so after the first trip I said, “Oh, this is pretty good!” And it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that, you do better as you go along because you have more experience in the place, you know what you can get out of the place. And it’s the same thing with the portraits.
At this point in your career – with all the publications, exhibitions, accolades and attaboys – do you still feel like you have something to prove?
Of course, I always do. My family was totally a mess, and I guess that’s where the love of the underdog comes from. When I was 5, I wanted to be a boxer, and my father was a tough guy, he didn’t want me to be a boxer cause I’ll get my brains knocked in. I wanted to play the drums, and I wanted a monkey. Emotionally I was beaten up as a kid. I had a tough upbringing. My pictures are an outgrowth of all that. When you’re a child since your own upbringing is the only one you know, you tend to think that other people are just like you, but But then you realize when you get older that they’re not. I was wise enough to cut myself loose from it, but I have that inside of me. You know, that anger. That I’ll always have. But I’m with my wife now 25 years, we have a very nice loving and caring relationship, I have a daughter who’s 22, I have three cats I play with and that I’m nice to. So, you know, I can look myself in the mirror. I came a long way.
I’ll tell you something. I read years ago that you can photograph or do anything with love or with passion. Love tends to last longer, people with passion burn out. I haven’t burned out yet, so I must be something. I think about that sometimes. Cause it’s difficult to keep up the passion.
I know my limits. That’s what you also have to know when you’re older. I can’t go out like I used to, for ten hours a day, every day for three months. I know when to say “ok I’m tired, that’s it”, because I walk a lot. Like, my assistant said, “I can’t keep up with you and I’m 30! I can’t imagine what you were like when you were my age.” He’s right. But that’s because I’m driven. But – I take plenty of time off, so I don’t have to be out there every day. When I’m not out, I’m not looking for pictures.
Well it’s good to know you can ‘turn it off’. What’s it like when you’re walking down the street without a camera in your hand?
Well, when you have a camera, there’s more pressure. The difference is, I don’t carry a camera with me all the time. Now, I’m looser. I still have my rules of the road, like if you’re not paying attention, look out. But I’m looser. I don’t think pictures, you know? I used to go uptown or midtown to take my pictures, and now I just stay mostly downtown. I never photographed where I lived. And maybe if I’ve lived in some crazy place in god-knows-where I would, but I’ve never chosen a place to live where I intended to photograph. I might have to go a mile or two miles, but I think that‘s a conscious decision. This way, when you walk out your door, you don’t feel that you’re missing something, you know. No, you need rest, I don’t care who you are. I don’t think you can be on all the time. And also, I challenge myself, I’m not challenged by the others.
How has being a part of Magnum influenced you?
There are some good photographers in Magnum, but, influence me? I think ‘influence’ is the wrong word. When I started photography, there were photographers who influenced me, but now I’m my own man. I’m a composite of all those people whose work I admired, but I made it my own. I took a little from here, a little from there, a little from there, a little from there, and then it became Bruce Gilden.
I think you would maybe get a different answer from someone who was 22 who joined Magnum. But most people who join magnum are pretty set in their ways anyway. You know what I mean? It’s a tough group. Otherwise you’d be overwhelmed. You have to have your feet planted in the right direction. You gotta know who you are, otherwise… If you don’t know who you are, you’re not going to make good pictures anyway. If you can’t recognize what a good picture is, how can you take good pictures? And if you’re not critical, I don’t see how you can be a good photographer.
What gives you inspiration to keep working, from one thing to the next, each day?
Cause you’re only as good as what you did yesterday. Or today. I mean, you have to keep going. There have been times where, for a few years, I didn’t do that much work, or anything interesting. And I know it. Artists have periods that are strong when you do a lot of good work, and then you have other periods that are totally devoid of good work. It’s just natural. Just think of all the photographers that you like, I’m sure some work you like better than others that they’ve done. Not all their work is strong, or good, or as good.
And, don’t forget when you get older, you’re going against time. There’s a time and a place. If I can’t do good pictures any longer, I quit, ok? But there’s also the thing on the other side – that you don’t want to admit that you’re old. But I admit that I’m old. I mean, I function well, but I changed. I started to do the portraits, because I can’t beat up my legs. I was very rough on my legs. Fortunately I’ve been blessed with a pretty athletic and good body, for not getting hurt and bending low – but there are changes. You have to be smart enough to realize what you can do and what you can’t do. It’s like someone who’s 70 who dresses like they’re 20. They look like they’re a shmuck! It’s the same thing here. Even if you wanted to do candid shots you have to figure out a way that you can do it in relation to your age – I’m talking totally about a physical thing now.
So… I’ve learned. It works for me up to this point. Who knows how far it can go. Once I lose the desire, then I’m done. It’s like love: if you don’t have it anymore, you just have to realize you can’t force it.
This interview with Bruce Gilden was published originally for GUP Magazine. We talk about finding yourself in other people, demanding more of your photos and yourself, and the limitations of getting older as a street photographer.