Bruce Gilden's photograph close up portrait of a ginger man, from the photo book: Face

Learn from the Masters: Bruce Gilden

I have decided to start a new photography series: “Learn from the Masters”. I would like to introduce you to some of the most iconic photographers, who have shaped modern photojournalism, street photography and photo documentary. I believe that nothing will help you to improve as photographers as learning from the masters of this art and taking them as a reference point.

Every article will describe the life and achievements of each photographer and will be concluded by the lessons that we can learn from each master.

 

Career

Bruce Gilden was born in Brooklyn in 1946. Probably he is one of the most iconic street photographers of all time due to its spontaneous and irreverent style.

Gilden attended college as a sociology student but dropped out soon as he found the course irrelevant and boring. In 1967 he bought his first camera and, fascinated by the idea of photographing people on the streets, enrolled in night classes in photography at the School of Visual Arts of New York. Here Gilden found his vocation and turned into a full-time photographer. After this first course he did not attend any other major formal formation, this is why Gilden is defined as a self-taught photographer mostly.

Gilden is well-known for his intrusive style of street photography. Indeed, he uses flashed extensively to make candid photographs at a ridiculous short distance from the subject.

Gilden’s first extensive project focused on a collection of photographs of Coney Island. Over the years he created several other compelling projects, photographing in New York, France, Ireland and Japan among others.

Gilden was able to transition from black and white to colour photography seamlessly. However, he never lost his direct approach, which brought him worldwide fame.

Gilden joined Magnum in 1988 and received several awards for his bodies of work. Some of the prizes include: three National Endowments for the Arts fellowships, the French “Villa Medicis Hors les Murs” grant and  a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship among others.

Gilden has been an incredibly productive artist throughout his career, publishing 15 monographs of his work and collaborating in several other publications.

Lessons Learnt:

1. Be Close to Your Subject

Bruce Gilden's photograph close ups photograph of a woman with heavy makeup

Bruce Gilden, 2015, Dewi Lewis Publishing

Gilden once said in an interview to WNYC:

I work so close that sometimes people think I am not photographing them, they look behind them. The viewer will always feel he is a participant because he is so close. He will feel that he is in the middle of the action.

And he also added in the same interview:

If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it is a street photograph.

Reading at this words is really interesting and inspiring. Too often we are scared to get closer to our subjects. This happens to two main reasons in my experience. The first is being scared to get out our comfort zone and invading the private space of our subject. The second one, which is quite linked to the first motivation, is being scared of confrontation. Indeed, if a person asks to motivate our behaviour, we might struggle finding a justification as we do not have a clear aim in mind. This causes our photographs to lack of interest as there is no clear subject within the frame. Possibly, our photographs might even be poorly composed due to out fear of being ‘caught’, which forces us to rush.

On the other hand, Gilden has worked extensively on the streets and knows how to interact with his subjects and to confront them. Indeed, he is quite renowned for his charisma and inattention to ethics and what people think about him. As a result, Gilden’s photographs are extremely interesting, as the viewer can feel part of the action. We can feel the street, the feelings and the moment thanks to this proximity to the subject.

 

2. Use a Flash

Bruce Gilden's photograph of a drunk man on the street

Bruce Gilden, Magnum Photos 

Using a flash could make the ‘getting closer to the subject’ process even more intimidating. Indeed, a dazzling light going off attracts many eyes on you. This makes many photographers uncomfortable as it increases the risk of confrontation. Many of us hide behind the excuse of a flash ruining the atmosphere and preventing the photographer from taking a candid shot, by revealing one’s presence.

On the one hand, I agree with this statement. Indeed, a flash might prevent us from taking multi exposures and ‘working the scene’ extensively without being noticed. On the other hand, a flash helps freezing a specific moment and no other tool will help us capturing a specific mood realistically and truthfully as much as a flash.

Gilden is a supporter and extensive user of flashes for street photography. Probably this is the single piece of equipment that identifies his works the most. He commented as follows about the deployment of this tool:

I use flash a lot because flash helps me visualising my feelings of the city: the energy, the stress, the anxiety that you find here. What I see, and the viewer should see, is that lots of the people walking here are lost in thoughts, they are not paying attention, they are thinking about this and bout that.

These words show how Gilden relies on flash to freeze a specific feeling without paying too much attention on ‘working the scene’.

3. Photograph the ‘Invisible’

Bruce Gilden's photograph close up portrait of a ginger man, from the photo book: Face

Bruce Gilden, 2015, Dewi Lewis Publishing

This is a very interesting and controversial point. Gilden in an interview at The Photography Show in London, 2016 made the following statement:

A lot of the people I photograph are not only left behind but they are invisible to the others. You know, people do not look at them closely and carefully. I look at them, I like people who are not the ordinary person.

It is not about that they say to me, it is about what I say to them. I have a conversation with them. For example, one lady, who is in the show, I showed her the picture and I asked her what she taught. She said: ‘I look beautiful’ and she had seen better days. […] Generally these are people on the margins somehow and a lot of people do not pay attention to them. So I find that, even though I do not do it for that reason, I do it because they are visually interesting for me, bur I feel that is nice to talk to them for some minutes, that someone is paying attention to them for 10 or 15 minutes. I have a whole conversation  sometimes, I leave and I have learnt something and I have given them a little sunlight.

Even though Gilden is well-known for his attitude on the streets, which might be perceived as rude and intrusive, I do believe that he deeply cares about the work he does. I appreciate that he admits that engaging in a conversation with his subjects is not his first objective. Indeed, what he seeks is a visually appealing character, who is out of the mainstream. However, I strongly believe that he takes his time to interact with the subject if asked to and does everything to make the subject feel comfortable. This might realise by giving back a picture, showing the image or simply engaging in a conversation.

This words about his spontanteous approach are confirmed by the work on several publications, such as: Faces, The Small Haiti Portfolio and A Beautiful Catastrophe among others.

 

4. Put Yourself in the Picture

Bruce Gilden's photograph go Haiti, a black and white portrait of a lady screaming

Bruce Gilden, magnum Photos

This is probably the most important lesson of the four and maybe the toughest to master. Indeed, it is incredibly difficult, as human beings, to expose ourselves while photographing. This implies displaying our fears, vulnerabilities, fragility and desires in order to capture the decisive moment – or even a good enough photograph.

Bruce Gilden argues that he puts himself in the image every single time he presses the shutter and this is what make his pictures click and pop. He also states that the more he immerses in the photograph and the reality that he is try ing to capture, the better results he achieves:

I mean, we only have x amount of wonderful photographs in our whole work no matter who we are. Why Does One Photo Sing And Another One Doesn’t? Think that there is a deeper vision that I am interested in. I am photographing myself in my pictures. That is me. Some people do not put themselves in their pictures. I put myself in the picture. If I do not go with who I am, I do not go. Thank God to photography, it probably saved my life.

Maybe, by deeply understanding the meaning of these words, we could better comprehend why Gilden developed his unique style of shooting. I think that being so close to the subject – and intrusive to a certain extent – allows him to put himself to the test and share his feeling about the moment he is photographing with the viewers.

 

Conclusion

Gilden is one of the pillars of modern street photography. His unique approach to the genre made him famous and infamous worldwide.

His style is not for everyone. It requires charisma, nonchalance, passion and a great willingness to be vulnerable. However, if you are looking to achieve the striking results that Gilden consistently got through his bodies of work, his example should be followed.

The first lesson we should learn from this master is the importance of being close to the subject. Combating this fear is the only way to make the viewer feel part of the image and involve her in the action.

Secondly, we might consider using a flash. This both allows to separate the subject from the background, but especially to freeze the feelings and expression of the subject through a single click.

Then, we should look at what and who people ignore. These are the situations at the margins and people who leave in miserable conditions. Of course, this should be done with great consciousness of ones’ situation and fragility. This approach requires ethics and respect. Following this tip is not for everyone and I highly discourage you to photograph bottom line situations if you can’t be empathetic with your subject.

Finally, we should put ourselves in the picture. This means that we should display our desires and vulnerabilities when making a photograph in order to maximise the involvement of the viewer.

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