Bruce Gilden: street photographer

Bruce Gilden; street photographer

Brief: Look carefully of the work of practitioners discussed in Part 2.

Bruce Gilden

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I watched Gilden mentor students on the Sky Arts programme ‘Masters of photography’ this week; he was pretty miserable and only like two of many images. He did make an important criticism though which was “get close, and then get closer to the action” as many of the documentary images were distant from the people in the scenes.


After studying sociology at Penn State University, Gilden felt drawn to photography as a lifestyle after seeing Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic 1966 film Blow Up and he decided that he, too, would become a photographer. In 1968, he bought himself a cheap Miranda camera and took a few evening classes at the School of Visual Arts…Bruce Gilden has continued to focus on strong characters and to apply Robert Capa’s mantra to his own work: “if the picture isn’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”.

Gilden’s first long-term personal project, which he worked on from 1968 until the late 1980’s, was on Coney Island, the legendary New York beach. In 1984, Bruce Gilden began to work in Haiti where he returned for the next ten years more than a dozen times for three-week stretches. describing himself as “drawn to the people’s singular blend of passion and apathy, cruelty and fatalism, resilience and desperation”.
Between trips abroad, Bruce Gilden always went back to his lifetime project, the streets of New York City, where he started photographing in 1981. Gilden’s powerful New York work has brought him worldwide fame: his confrontational, graphic style and his use of flash have rendered his black and white images immediately recognizable. Magnum website bio

Gilden has also travelled the world on personal and commissioned projects looking at gang culture in Japan,  gypsies in Portugal and Romania and “bad guys” in Russia and Australia. That seems to be a theme in his work; the darker side of street culture. In 2008 Bruce Gilden photographed foreclosures in the USA and in 2103 Middlesex in New York, Paris, Manchester, Hong Kong and Johannesburg.  He has published and exhibited widely.  In March, 2015 his recent work was exhibited in a group show, “Strange and Familiar, Britain as revealed by international photographers” at the Barbican Art Museum in London.

These images are from his ‘Face’ series on the Magnum website.

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© Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos

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© Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos

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© Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos

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© Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos

I also looked at a video of him taking street pictures in New York called ‘Show us your character. He gets really, really close and the subjects who have flash thrown into their eyes from a metre or less away look shocked and un-prepared for what has happened. It is brutal and perhaps could only have happened in that setting; Gilden boasts in the film that “I have no ethics” in his approach to taking images, which makes me like his images less now that I know that. There is an exploitative feel to many of these images.

What can I take away from Gilden? Eric Kim has an interesting take on what we can learn from photographers.

5 Lessons Bruce Gilden Has Taught Me About Street Photography

5 Lessons Bruce Gilden Has Taught Me About Street Photography

Be who you are – Bruce Gilden is true to himself “shoot who we are” (arrogant, brash, aggressive, immoral) so be true to yourself and your own ethics and personality

Show ‘humanity’ – Kim makes the point that some of Gilden’s best work (Haiti) was negotiated with people and rooted in relationships built up over many years. He was close to their lives and the issues that concerned them. ‘Humanity’ is often the emotional content that people connect with in an image and often it means spending time with people and taking a lot of images. I have been anxious about ‘taking up people’s time’ but maybe I should relax and take more time with them – and take a lot more images.

‘Create unusual compositions’ – this is one of the most striking features of his street compositions. I think that this is a lesson I need to learn having just completed assignment No 1. I think having variety of framing and distance (Gilden normally uses a 28mm lens) would add variety to my work. I will experiment with this; I am thinking now about Assignment 5 which is going to be about the impact of cancer on families where the impact is variable and so should be the framing. Perhaps making unsettling compositions would illustrate the dislocation of ‘cancer’ in people’s lives well?

‘Create mystery’ – by unconventional selections and sometimes by shooting less. I am already thinking about how I might apply that in my assignments.

‘Keep going over the same ground’ – there is always something to see in your own backyard. I have been thinking about that for a future assignment and it dawned on me that rather than trying to recruit people to share their experiences of cancer it might be better to me to create a photographic narrative over the next 3 months. It takes away lots of issues about recruitment, consent, consultation etc and I think I can handle the intensity of reflection.

I broke one of my personal rules about people after seeing Bruce Gilden on Sky Arts, which was ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ I have learnt a surprising amount here (helped by Eric Kim) and I think it will help me to experiment and grow my work.