A quick step to the left, camera upturned, a bright flash and his subject is caught- sometimes mildly perturbed and as candidly as a street photographer could hope for. If Bruce Gilden’s (1946) approach to photography sounds intrusive and in your face that’s because that’s precisely what it is.
Famed for his confrontational method of shooting, the result is one of the most distinctive and original styles found in contemporary photography. Having been taking pictures for almost half a century, self-taught Bruce is a hugely influential figure in the world of street photography, a member of the legendary Magnum Photo agency, and the recipient of a slew of grants and awards including a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 2013.
Born and bred in Brooklyn, Bruce has been photographing the streets of his hometown since 1981 matching the relentless speed of the city with images that possess a chaotic energy and a remarkable sense of immediacy. While the city might have changed over the years, Bruce’s direct and unfiltered approach to his art remains firmly old school New York. With an eye for the eccentric, his work provides an authentic taste of the unsanitary, and raw nature of the city before Giuliani cleaned it up and installed a Starbucks on every block. Bruce says that “with a good street photographer you can smell the street” and his unique technique undeniably gives his photos a distinct sense of urgency and movement that is not so much seen as experienced.
“I’m known for taking pictures very close, and the older I get, the closer I get”- true to his word, Bruce’s recent on-going projects have swapped out the streetscape for a series of up close portraits. His subjects are those who exist on the periphery, individuals who as he puts it “aren’t the main event”. One particular project entitled “Black Country” (part of the larger series “FACE”) saw Bruce travel to the West Bromwich, UK. Here we are confronted with intense visages- many of which have been battered by the forces of poverty and addiction.
There is a real honesty to the unremittingly stark manner in which his subjects are portrayed. In the age of Instagram filters and photoshop to see each blemish, vein, and pore not hidden but exalted and unflinchingly laid bare is unnerving and Bruce forces us to confront our own prejudices in viewing his work. Decontextualised from their surroundings, these tightly composed mugshots give us nowhere to look but straight into the eyes of men and women whose lives are a far cry from the aspirational fairy tales we often conflate with reality.
Unlike his previous work, Bruce has received permission from each person photographed, allowing for the intense proximity of these photos to be less an invasion of privacy and more a powerful proclamation of their subjects' existence. After all, many of these faces belong to a society which would rather pretend they don't exist.
Speaking about the woman photographed with lipstick on her forehead in his Black Country series, Bruce recalls that upon seeing her picture she remarked, “I look beautiful”.Though there is ample opportunity to inject a political agenda into his pictures (West Bromwich, like many of the areas Bruce photographs, was hit hard by rapid deindustrialisation), Bruce’s work seems to evade the twee narrative of the humanitarian photographer who seeks to humanise the disenfranchised and downtrodden. Indeed in its dogged willingness to highlight every scar and wrinkle his camera is certainly unforgiving. Then again his subjects also don’t seem to be asking for forgiveness or sympathy. With expressions ranging from apathetic to angry and disdainful, these individuals are not here for you to connect with them or imagine their life stories. They are simply just there, whether you like it or not. Just like Gilden's street photography style it is bitingly honest, in your face, and perhaps a little discomforting.
It seems to me that aquality that defines Bruce’s photos is strength. He speaks candidly of a turbulent past- his mother who committed suicide after battling with substance abuse is certainly present in many of the women he shoots. Through shared suffering he is in many ways photographing a part of himself and his own pain. These are strong pictures of strong people and they elicit even stronger reactions. With each contour and crevice magnified they sear themselves into your consciousness and whatever your response to them is, I doubt you’ll be forgetting his photos any time soon.
You can follow Bruce Gilden on all social media accounts for updates on his upcoming shows and events and to view more of his images:
About the writer: Kabir Jhala
I’m a recent graduate of Durham University where I studied English literature and history. I did a year abroad in Toulouse to study art history and I have a particular interest in British and Italian art from the early 20th century. When I’m not in an art gallery I’m usually playing the violin or unsuccessfully practising my French.