Bruce Gilden is no stranger to controversy. From his in-your-face street portraits to his Two Days In Apalachia which has been called poverty porn, everyone has an opininon on his work and his methodology. But Bruce reveals a kinder, gentler side when the Multistory cameras follow him around West Bram hunting for new subjects for his Face series. He talks about how his background influenced his work and really comes off as a frail human being doing his best to express a personal vision of the world. Hit the jump for the video!
A Kinder, Gentler Bruce Gilden
The video was shot in 2013 when Multistory invited Bruce Gilden to continue his Face series in the Black Country. The cameras follow him and his assistant around the streets of West Bromwhich, Dudley and Wolverhampton as they meet peole and take close-up flash portraits.
Bruce Gilden’s Face series has been a devisive body of work with many people applauding its fresh new direction for the Magnum photographer. Still others saw the work as exploitative where subjects appeared more like victimized charactures. But Bruce has alawyas focused his lens on people on the periphery, portraying the marginalised as beautiful in spite of being bruised by life. And while his camera is unflinching the images still offer an empathetic embrace rather than simply pointing and laughing.
Bruce Gilden’s own words on the subject:
A friend of mine said to me, he knew me since junior high school, he said, “We never knew that you had any inkling to do photography.” I mean I couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler but yet if I think back upon it, my father (who was a gangster type) he grew tomatoes, he grew roses when he got older. He made spaghetti sauce for 3 days. He decorated the house. He had this artistic ability. So it comes from somewhere. It’s in my soul.
But then I realized that it probably initially came out of my father being negative with me and I had to prove to him. Even with my father, as much as he took out of me, cuz innately I really loved him. I’m able to say today that if it wasn’t for what he and my mother gave me I couldn’t do the photographs.
I’ve always been a candid black and white street photographer. And the people are not your average people, that I photograph generally. Since I’ve been a child, I guess 5 years old or something like that, I’ve always been in sports. I like sports a lot and I always rooted for the underdog. I need people to photograph who have been bruised by life. And a lot of people have been bruised by life, you don’t have to be embarrassed to be bruised by life. I mean I made a lot of mistakes in my life.
And that’s the trick in photography. You put who you are in the photograph. Most people haven’t lived the life, I almost died on drugs. My father was a gangster. They used to have fights. My mother was an alcoholic, committed suicide. I mean, I had a life. Okay? My guts are in those pictures. That’s why my portraits are really strong. And I don’t care what anybody says, they’re really strong.
What’s amazing is that some people that have like a certain, what we would consider a defect, didn’t spoil the picture. Because if it goes too far, you’re finished. You can’t have a caricature. And it’s quite interesting that as sharp as the picture is that the people that I think are strong don’t go overboard. I mean like, the lady with the one tooth. You know, she has one tooth in the picture with the lipstick. And she’s got lipstick on her forehead. I showed her the picture and she said, “I’m beautiful!” But that’s getting off the point. But the thing is that to me she is beautiful. There’s something that comes through.
So I go with my guts. It’s like, you got to an event, okay? You can photograph the event or you can photograph the periphery. So for me it’s about the periphery. It’s about the people that are on the edge, okay? And I’m interested in that. I mean, when I go to Haiti they love me because I dance for them. I make them laugh. I feel good with those people. Anywhere I’ve been to photograph, I feel good with the people. Otherwise I can’t do it.
The funny thing is no matter who I photograph my pictures are always very elegant. And also I find those people beautiful. Just because someone is downtrodden and has had a tough life and maybe life beat them. That doesn’t mean that they’re not beautiful. You see? What people don’t identify. I really identify with these people. I love them. I mean, you know… You see I’m almost crying because I really like them. I enjoy myself with them.
Through the years I prided myself on the ability to capture good pictures. Candid with a lot of things going on. Multi-dimensional type pictures, okay? It’s really fucking hard to do, okay? And the thing is that doesn’t make a picture good or not. It has to work within the frame form-wise and it has to have an emotional content. But it’s not like shooting fish in a barrel. I go out all day I ask 2 or 3 people. I have a vision.
When we first got here about a week and a half ago there was a lady that I thought I’d want to photograph. She was a grandmother, she might have been 45 but when you’re poor you look much older than you are. And there were three generations. Her, her daughter wheeling the pram and a little baby. Baby? The child must have been one and a half years old. And the kid stuck his head from the plastic so I made a joke to him, you know, not that he could understand. You know, “Be careful you’re going to get wet!” So the mother says, “You don’t fucking talk to MY kid!”
What I noticed about here when you go anywhere, and I’ve travelled in about 50 or 60 countries. You know, a lot of them in the Western World. They have all the same shops, the same stores and people look alike. Here, they maintain their identity whether it’s in their hairstyles which look very outdated. I mean, the women or the young girls here wear their hair in a fashion that would be out fashion 30 or 40 years ago. They’re very protective, a lot of the people here and especially in places like West Brom and they’re very angry.
The thing is, look. I’m an angry person. I know it, okay? I channelled my anger, okay? I made it a positive not a negative, alright? I’m proud of myself when I look in the mirror because I could have turned out very differently, okay? I did a lot of crazy things and you know, I came a long way. Alright, I educated myself, I did a lot of things, okay? And the problem with people like that is, they’re angry. But they’re angry at everybody. I’m angry at you if you mess with me, okay? If you go over the line I will tear your head off. You know, literally. And I don’t care because I’m dealing with the situation at that moment. But these people are angry at everybody.
Street photography is a young man’s game. It’s not an old man’s game. When you get to my age it’s hard to still do it. I will tell you. You gotta be an animal. And you have to have something that you want to achieve. And you have to have a vision. I spun my wheels for 5 years, 10 years in New York. I wasn’t doing anything different. And it was worse. And then I discovered something. You know, because I didn’t quit.
I’m competing with myself. I’m not competing with the others out there. Nobody can tell me that a picture isn’t good if I think it’s good. I couldn’t care what they say. Because I know it’s good. And they also don’t realize that the more people that aren’t so complimentary just inspires me more. Because I work on that energy. When you criticize me, I’ll go more to who I am.
I have atrial fibrillation, which, I’m fine but you have a greater percentage to have a stroke. So when I go away like three weeks I always worry about it a little bit even though I can walk for 300 years. My heart is strong. They want me to go on a certain kind of medicine and I don’t want to take it. I just take aspirin. So hopefully I’ll live a long time because I still want to take pictures. But I can tell you, once I can’t take a picture the way I want to I quit.
To me life is about overcoming fears. I have tons of fears. And all of them almost I’ve overcome. I still have the same fears but that’s why I can’t handle weakness.
The street’s my theatre. And the funny thing is when I’m not taking pictures I don’t like to be amongst crowds. I like to be in my house playing with my cats, talking to my wife. I don’t like parties. I don’t like openings. I need the peace and the serenity. I’m not like a 24/7 photography person. Because I think my level of intensity is so high that If you’re 24/7 I would be burnt out ages ago.
Somebody once said you either photograph with love or passion. And the ones who have passion don’t last that long. I’m paraphrasing but I think I’m lasting pretty good. Because I think the work I’m doing now is stronger than my work ever.
Face, by Bruce Gilden on Amazon.
I’ve seen London, I’ve seen France. I’ve seen Bruce Gilden in his underpants!
Listen, it’s easy to hop on the Bruce Gilden hating bandwagon. It’s easy to disparage his shooting style as invasive and confrontational. And it’s easy to stay on the safe side of the unflattering vision of humanity revealed in his work. But this video really shows a different side of the Magnum photographer.
At points it almost seems disingenuous as he hams it up for his subjects but when you listen to what he’s saying he sounds like a man that has nothing to prove outside of the work itself. He’s dedicated his life to creating images that not everyone is going to get. Now, as old age and health issues creep up on him he keeps moving forward with the same goal:
“But I can tell you, once I can’t a take a picture the way I want to I quit.”
Not yet, Bruce. Not yet.
What’s your take on the Bruce Gilden at work video? Surprising insight into the life and mind of a master street photographer? Or mindless propaganda designed soften the image of a notorious grouch? Post your ideas in the comments below and keep the conversation going!