Photography August 13, 2014
I walked into the photography workshop for the first time, and the instructor said to no one in particular. “I hate these things. I hope you’re not talented. That makes it even harder.” It turned out to be a typical Bruce Gilden protestation. But don’t listen to him. The truth is Bruce is a generous teacher with a keen eye, always ready to share his knowledge of photography, which is vast.
I first met Bruce in 2008. I was living in Sydney, and flew to New York to attend a photography workshop held by Magnum, the esteemed photo agency founded by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Bruce’s larger-than-life personality and heavy Brooklyn accent make perfect sense when you see his photos. Tough, dramatic, sometimes surreal, often funny, Bruce’s pictures are energized by blurred backgrounds, long shadows, and the stark flash that illuminates his extraordinary subjects: Yakuza mobsters, New York eccentrics, Haitian Vodouists, Japanese bike gang members.
I live in New York City now, and Bruce and I have stayed friends. I sat down with him recently to talk about his unique approach to photography.
Michael Goldberg: Some artists’ work becomes milder as they get older, but if anything your work has gotten tougher. Why is that?
Bruce Gilden: I have always been a rebel and I have always been angry. Now there are so many inequities in this world that make me even angrier. I try to deal with these inequities with my art, in my own style. Recently I have been photographing men and women that people don’t want to see. They are not only left behind in today’s society but they are becoming invisible.
What interests you about these people?
Since I was 5 years old I have been interested in characters. I’m visually attracted to people who have certain details that make them stand out from the average. It could be some physical trait or it could be the intensity of their eyes, so when I started photography, I knew what I wanted to photograph. Even though my vision has matured, I’m still interested in the same people.
“I’m visually attracted to people who have certain details that make them stand out from the average… Even though my vision has matured, I’m still interested in the same people.”
What’s more important for a strong photograph, the emotional content of the subject, or the picture’s formal qualities?
To me it’s both: a good photograph is framed well and has a strong emotional content. “BD” (Before Digital) when you looked at a contact sheet, the great photograph jumped off the sheet.
Speaking of digital, your approach to photography is technically and physically demanding, but for most of your career you’ve shot on film. Refining your technique must have involved a lot of trial and error? Do you think if you’d had digital when you started out, it would have been easier?
When I started out taking pictures at Coney Island — my first long-term personal project — I didn’t use flash. It took me years to start using an electronic flash. It had always intrigued me because as a child I watched a lot of black and white TV and film noir, and I loved the large shadows that were thrown on the walls by the lighting. Since I’m not a technician, when I started flash, I experimented because I had no idea how to get the effects I was after. Eventually it became part of my vision, and now it’s natural. I think that if I had digital when I started out, it wouldn’t have been very good because I would have been concentrating on the process too much and not on the emotion of the subject.
“I think that if I had digital when I started out, it wouldn’t have been very good because I would have been concentrating on the process too much and not on the emotion of the subject.”
The prevalence of camera phones has made photography ubiquitous, and digital SLRs are very advanced. But really good photography is still as rare as it was when you started out. Why is it so difficult to make a good photograph?
Why does one photograph sing and the other one doesn’t? It’s always been difficult to make a great photograph. It doesn’t get any easier when you have been doing the same type of photography for a long period of time. It’s like God telling you that you have to work harder.
As well as your art practice, you work in fashion and advertising. What does your experience as an artist bring to your commercial projects?
I think that my unique style brings a real creative vision. My pictures jump off the page so the viewers notice the picture. It’s life, it’s real. It’s like “Cinéma-Vérité”.
Bruce Gilden has received numerous awards, including the European Award for Photography, three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a Japan Foundation fellowship. You can see more of his work at www.magnumphotos.com
Michael Goldberg is an award winning photographer and Creative Director. He lives and works in New York.