Guillotine s’est récemment entretenu avec le photographe new-yorkais Bruce Gilden. Membre de la prestigieuse agence Magnum depuis 1998 (il en fut le vice-président pendant deux ans), il est à la fois controversé et considéré comme le plus agressif des photographes de rue de sa génération. Bruce Gilden nous parle de son enfance à Brooklyn, de sa famille et de ses choix qui l’ont progressivement amené vers la photographie de rue. Il revient sur la polémique de son projet Face (Dewi Lewis – 2015), son inspiration, sa vision de la photographie contemporaine et ses futurs projets.
GUILLOTINE: How did you actually come to street photography in the first place? What drove you there?
Bruce Gilden: I started photography in 1967. I was at Penn State University and there was nothing I really wanted to study, so I figured I would try something artistic. I decided to study acting. I’m pretty much a character but I have a heavy Brooklyn accent… Back in 1966 I saw the film Blow Up. I didn’t like the movie at all – I don’t like Antonioni’s films – but photography was in the air, it was fashionable. I’m not a fashionable person but I said to myself: “Why don’t I try photography!”. I was totally ignorant: I’m not a technician at all, and when I first picked up a camera I didn’t even know that when you look through the viewfinder, that’s what you’d supposedly got!
So I was driving my father’s truck by day and I was taking photography courses and acting courses at night. My acting teacher Bill Hickey was nominated for an academy award in The Producers (1968), he had a small role as a drunk by the end of the movie. One night he didn’t come so his assistant who was a big guy did Shakespeare. And I said to myself “I can never do Shakespeare with my accent!”. Meanwhile at the same time, one evening I looked at a print that I had just made,- it was nothing really but it’s just that I had made it and that’s the larger point. When I saw the print I said “Wow! I did this myself!” and then I was hooked.
Eventually I guess I chose street photography for two reasons. First of all, because I’m basically shy and you could walk around and take pictures without having to talk to anybody. Also I chose street photography because I was a good athlete. I’m quite mobile and also I’m very quick thinking, for things in the streets. I’m not an intellectual though but I read a lot because I always try to learn and better myself. What’s interesting is that for some godforsaken reason my parents probably never went beyond the 6th grade at school, so there were no books at all in my house. My father read the Daily News or the Daily Mirror and me, I watched television. There was no intellectual stimulation: we didn’t go to museums, we didn’t discuss anything that was happening in the world. I was way behind. But at 17, I started to go to museums on my own initiative. I was coming from Queens so I would drive to the Metropolitan Museum and look at the impressionist paintings.
I really liked them at that time but now I don’t like them as much. I don’t like religious paintings. I just can’t look at them. I’m not a big organized religion person anyway, but I just don’t like them. I don’t like Chagall either. They are beautiful painters technically, but I’m not interested in that.
Back to photography, I looked at photographers’ work, I was checking out where I thought the photographer stood, what lenses they used, etc. That’s how I learnt how to do what I wanted to do. There were several people – I won’t mention names – whose pictures I liked a lot. I guess I took all these people in and then I made my own little style, after years and years, because you can’t do it overnight. So that’s how I got into street photography.
Your style of photography is very unique, did you start shooting this way because you were curious of the results you’d get or did you have an idea of what you wanted to show in the first place and was street photography the mean to accomplish this?
When I first started photography I was always struck by a quote that I read by Robert Capa : “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” I’ve always liked the same kind of subjects. When I was 5 years old, I wanted a monkey, I wanted to play the drums and I wanted to be a boxer. I was watching a lot of wrestling and I liked wrestlers who were different, the ones with a long beard who weighed 400 pounds, or the gorgeous ones with beautiful blond hair. Something had to be visual to attract me. I have a little bit of a wild street kid in me but I also have something that is very traditional in me. I always photograph people I’m interested in because these people are always beautiful to me. My sense of beauty isn’t the typical sense of beauty. I’m interested in more real people: the girl with the weird look or the facelift, the one with dirt on the face. To me the real people are interesting. I’ve always been interested in the underdogs. When I watched fight boxing as a kid, most of the time I rooted for the underdog. In my photographs, especially Face (Dewi Lewis – 2015), it’s people who are left behind and they have become like invisible. I think I did very well, the portraits are really good and strong. There are people who really love the portraits and those who don’t like them have a lot of nerve to call these people ugly. They’re not ugly! They’re just average persons..
Of course everything that I photograph has to be interesting visually. I’ve photographed a lot of tough guys in my life, in Australia, Japan and yet I could walk into a room filled with tough guys and I’d only photograph two or three, because it’s a visual process. Of course, even though I’m not political, my pictures are pretty much a comment about society.
Initially the pictures weren’t as well formed, then I started to control the frame more and more. Form is very important to me. A good picture should be framed very well and have a strong emotional content. Coney Island (1999) is less mature work, maybe it’s more pure in a sense but I don’t find most of it my strongest work. Some pictures are really good and make a statement like it’s Coney Island, so it’s fine. But if you ask me which are my best pictures, I think I grew artistically. After X amount of time I was able to control the camera, and don’t forget: when you work in Coney Island, it’s a lot easier than working in the streets. There the background is pretty open, so you don’t have buildings, it’s no sun/shadow/sun/shadow and people aren’t walking right in front of you. So probably part of the reason that my pictures are in the style they are is because in many big cities, especially New York City where my lifetime work was, people are always walking in front of you, there was sun and shadow. And I wanted to be able to capture the main point clearly and sharp, so that’s why I started to use flash. I’ve always said that I liked Film Noir. Did it influence me subconsciously? Maybe. I’ve always wanted to photograph somebody’s soul. I wanted to get to the inside and the closer you are, the more opportunities you have to do that.
In some of your most iconic pictures, one can indeed get the feeling that you can see the soul of the persons you shoot. It seems that what you show is beyond the physical appearance of the subject. Is it the sole goal of your work or just one of its facets for you?
It’s not the sole goal, I don’t think about that really. I put my own soul into it. This is why I can tell you or tell somebody “With all I’ve done, you’re not going to be able to do the same as me. Maybe you’ll do worse, maybe you’ll do better, maybe you’ll do equal.” But the thing is I’ve had a very tough background, emotionally. My parents were pretty strange and I suffered. So I’m putting all of that into my pictures. If you look at the Face (Dewi Lewis – 2015) book, there was a quote by Oscar Wilde that I found two days before printing (interestingly enough, Oscar Wilde and I were born on the same day, October 16): “Every portrait that is painted with feelings is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter”. So those people are me in some way, shape and form. And I put a lot in. I’m not doing it for anyone, it’s not about money, I just have to do it! Just think now, I’m 69 and yet I’m doing new work. How many photographers at 69 are doing new work? I’m not talking if you are using photography to create in a studio, I’m talking about going out there with people. You would be hard-pressed to find many people at 69 doing good work. That means I’m passionate about it and I compete with myself. Even if I had to stop shooting for three months because of a leg injury but now it’s healed. It’s tough to go out there now and sometimes I question myself. Because once I can’t do it, then I’ll stop. I wanted to do the Face project for 20 years, maybe 30 years, a long time ago. I had an idea to do it and then I found the right camera: the Leica S. But I don’t research, I’m not a researcher for equipment. So I found the right camera and that’s how this came about. For the last few years in New York, I was really bored and I needed to do something differently. I would go out but it was really an effort. I mean, it’s always an effort, but it was really an effort. You have to push yourself. The good photographs make it all worthwhile but who knows when you’re going to get a good photograph? I also should say that with the faces, it’s a lot easier to do good pictures than candid photography because when you combine a lot of stuff in the street, anything can go wrong. The stage set is set for you. In my pictures, people are walking. I’m a perfectionist so I couldn’t feel good about a picture unless it’s very good. Even with the faces, I’ve done those for about two and a half years and they got a lot stronger. I have some good ones from the beginning but as I went further, I saw how much more I could get out of it. It’s a learning process.
In Face (Dewi Lewis – 2015), you showed the reality, the real face of poverty, and there was a big controversy about this project, as you know. Some people and medias said your portraits were too extreme and cruel. Do you think rich people can’t front this usually hidden reality, the economic reality and the price of their own wealth? What’s your reaction to those critics?
Not everybody in that book is poor. All those people I never met before. Some are in assisted living facilities where I was allowed to take pictures because that’s where the project started in Miami. I sent scans of pictures to them and I was allowed back again. Then I went to a lot of state fairs. Also I went to Colombia where I just photographed people who I thought could be interesting to photograph, visually for myself.
The critics and media who make statements like this show me that they know nothing about life. I don’t read anything about me but I did read about this. One person called the people ugly. What right do you have to call someone ugly? To me, the choice of images of celebrities that magazines and the media publish today, give a totally wrong message because you have kids who want to be like so and so. So if that so and so had 42 facelifts and had lip enlargement, it’s what they show, and the magazines spot out any pimple that they have on their face. So then you have these little kids who want to be thin like that… and my daughter one time was anorexic. So I’m just saying: “You’re telling me that I’m showing something?” What’s shown everyday to people? That’s the image kids aspire to, so how much harm are they doing? Why don’t they talk about that rather than saying what I do? I think these people who make these comments should look in the mirror and look at themselves and get out of their offices, go in the street and look at people, see what’s out there. Most of the people I photographed nobody pays attention to them and they were so happy to be photographed. For example, one lady from my book, in West Bromwich, England, she had seen better days and it is a strong photograph. I showed her the picture and I said “What do you think?” I didn’t say anything else. She said: “I’m beautiful!”. And I showed her the next picture and she said “I’m beautiful!”. And then I went back and I looked at the picture. Even if she’s having a tough time now, I looked and I saw where it’s coming from. She might be 40-45 years old but she looked older because she had a tough life. I saw how she put her lipstick on, she cares. There’s a memory somewhere, a faint image of what she at one time was physically or she thought she was visually. Another example: this man in West Bromwich, wearing shorts, his legs were very thin, I think he was sick, really sick. It’s a very strong image and a very beautiful image to me. My images aren’t pretty but they are beautiful, there’s a difference. We talked for 20 minutes but he could have talked to me for 2 hours because he’s lonely. I’m not saying I’m doing it for that reason but I do bring things to these people. The images are showing their condition. So I don’t understand when people say that it’s cruel. To me, you’re not looking at reality. Everybody can’t be without scars. We all have scars whether they’re inside or outside. I don’t like these bags under my eyes but I would never change it. I want real people to look real. I want people to look at them, everybody has to look at them. A lot of people love them and they think they are beautiful and other people have more difficulty with them. But nobody is in between. That’s not why I did it, that’s my style, it’s always been my style: strong and confrontational. What people also don’t realize is I have a very good quality in approaching people. They’re comfortable with me. A lot of people couldn’t take those pictures, not only because they may not want to or they may not have the capacity, they may not have the aptitude or the desire. Part of the process is that when I approach somebody, I want to take that picture and with my portraits, they felt comfortable with me. It’s interesting because naysayers would always say “You know, he doesn’t ask people!”. Now I ask and they got another problem. The people don’t even know me because I’m basically very kind to other persons. I’m an open person, as you can tell by the interview, I’m not giving you a standard fare or I don’t have a publicist telling you “OK this is what we have!”. I’m open, because I don’t have anything to hide. Those pictures are fucking good and I know they’re good. It doesn’t matter what anybody says and the more naysayers I have, the more pictures I’ll do because I work on negative energy. That gets me going, that’s my big stimulation. I don’t need anybody to tell me what’s good and what’s not good because I know what’s good and what’s not good. I would love everyone to say these are the best pictures they’ve ever seen but I understand it’s not for everybody. Still, a lot of the comments that are made are totally off base. These critics should look at themselves, they should go away from the desk, go away from the political correctness, go out in the street and really look at people, don’t give lip service that you care about people, do something! I don’t see these people giving their life after the earthquake in Haiti. Put your money where your mouth is, that’s all.
You’ve also just released another book, Hey Mister Throw Me Some Beads! (Kehrer – 2016), about the New Orleans Mardi Gras with pictures shot in the mid-70’s and early 80’s. What made this project special for you and what can we expect from the book.
It was the first time I was doing a long term essay out of New York. When I started in Coney Island, I wouldn’t do much else. I would maybe go to Britain for a couple days because my ex-wife was a painter and she would have a show. But I hadn’t done a long extended essay. I had seen some pictures that people had taken at the Mardi Gras and it looked interesting. It was like my winter project. One time I took the bus, which I’d never do again because it was like 33 hours to get there. Then they dropped me off on Times Square in the middle of winter. I had my cameras and my clothes in a bag, I’m totally fucking exhausted and then I had to go into the subway and go to Brooklyn Heights where we lived. But generally I flew a couple of times and other times I took my van and slept in it. So it was my winter Odyssey. I have some good pictures but it was a tough essay to do because you have to go beyond the mask and a lot of people are masked. My wife thinks it will do well because people will have less difficulty with that. But I have a different opinion…
Could you name a few photographers or artists who most inspired you in your life and why them?
My dearest one was Ed van der Elsken whom I loved, he was a great guy. The one who had the most influence on my style would be Lisette Model, a woman photographer. A friend of mine who died 20-30 years ago was a very good photographer although he didn’t become a photographer until his mid-forties. He was a graphic designer called Leon Levinstein. I like Shomei Tomatsu. There are several others. I always enjoy looking at their pictures, all for different reasons. I think I took a lot from all of them. The trick is to make all of that into you so you’re not looking like you’re doing the same thing that somebody did 20 years ago because I don’t respect that. Some people have mentors that they really like and then they don’t go further than the mentors. A lot of young people today don’t know the history of photography. And by not knowing the history, they take these pictures that someone has done better 20 years ago. Also, there is a lot of documentary photography, a certain kind, that you could take the names away and you could replace them with a hundred of other names. The only difference is the subject. One might photograph majorettes, the other might photograph soldiers… I’m not into that. Even if it’s well done, it could be OK but it’s not what I aspire to do or be.
Have you seen an evolution in photography over the years, and where do you see it going in the future?
That’s a tough one! I would say it’s changed a lot. I used to go to see all the shows and I have a large book collection but I’ve stopped buying books six years ago, first because my daughter was going to school and I had to pay for her, so I didn’t have the money and I stopped collecting. So I’m not as familiar as I used to be but I can tell you when I have gone to major shows of new photography, or from recent acquisitions from the Museum of Modern Art, it’s a little disappointing because a lot of the photographs that they acquire aren’t documentary, which is ok. But they have these photographs that mix photography with other things. Even if they’re doing very abstract photography, it’s really poor in my estimation. Some of the abstract photography is not formed well, they’re ugly, it’s just not good photography so I don’t understand it. Somebody’s ideas are very, very shallow and I don’t mind process, but let’s have processes done well and interesting. Don’t just have process because it’s process. Also in documentary photography, you might have an interesting subject but it’s not only the interesting subject that is interesting, it’s the realization. Some people make books that are quite interesting, because of the weird design and the layout, and that covers up the real photography. Is it good? The book might be interesting, but the photography itself isn’t as good as it could be. And I also wonder what will happen in the future. People have shorter attention spans, the world isn’t going in my direction, it’s going in another direction. But a lot of young people like my work, so that’s always nice. I wonder if images that are taken today or 50 years ago from people who work in a documentary mode are going to be looked at as primitive in 50 years from now. I’m pretty certain that’s what’s going to happen because the changes are coming much faster. If I look at images from the 19th century, I’d say “Wow, that’s like prehistoric!”, I can’t imagine what people are going to say in 50 years from now. I remember when they first started to do movies with digital. I thought it was really weird and now, I still don’t like them, it looks fake but it has taken over. It’s not about the story anymore, it’s not about a man who falls in love with a woman or a guy kills someone, it’s about the effects… so everything has changed!
You’ve been a member of the Magnum cooperative since 1998. Did you establish some meaningful connections through the agency and did it influence your work? What does Magnum represent for you?
I’m close with Martin Parr, we’ve always been close. I’m close with Chien-Chi Chang. I’m friendly with several others. I share a lot with a lot of them, some others don’t like me, some I don’t like. I don’t think it influences my photography at all, because I go my own way and I’m not a guy who hangs out. Many people know Magnum, so being part of the agency means more people know you. When we did this project called Postcards From America, I had been offered by Leica the camera I used for Face (Dewi Lewis – 2015), so it’s good from that perspective. It’s an interesting organization, all of the photographers are quite smart. I have street smartness so I’m quite comfortable there. But I do keep my distance. I was vice president and I quit after two years because I had enough of certain people. You can’t knock your head through the wall. But it’s like anything: as long as the pluses outweigh the minuses you stay. And overall it’s been good to me and I’m proud to be in Magnum. I’m not one of those ones who quit because they want to be an artist, you know. And we have a lot of good photographers there, so it’s fine.
What are your future projects?
Let’s start with exhibitions: In March, I’m in a show in London that Martin Parr curated at the Barbican Art Center in London (ndlr: Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers). I have nine 4 feet x 6 feet prints that I did in England. The show is about how international photographers from the 1930s onwards have captured the social, cultural and political identity of the UK. It’s a very good group: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, David Goldblatt, Candida Höfer, Sergio Larrain, Shinro Ohtake, Paul Strand, Garry Winogrand… You have 20-25 people and all pretty good. Even if you don’t love all of them, they all did work that is at least interesting, most of them anyway. Then I’m in a show, Postcards From America at Pier 24 in San Francisco, it’s going to be a big show. I also went back to Florida for a magazine (we were supposed to go to Minnesota but it was too cold). I hadn’t photographed for a few months so I was a little itchy. Now I just got back from Hawai for Postcards. I’m continuing the faces, then we’ll see. I have a lot of ideas, but I don’t want to tell all of them because then someone could jump on it too. But like I said, if I can’t do it any longer I’ll quit. It’s like an athlete or a boxer: once you’re at the top of your game you’d better quit. I think the recent photography is very strong and it’s as good as anything I’ve ever done. Even what I did for RATP was very strong. By the way they’re putting out a book about it in March (NDLR: see here), but two of my best pictures are out because people threatened to sue. The law here is insane, and the pictures are nothing, it’s just like I took you walking down the street. So I wasn’t happy about it and I told them “Why don’t you just take out the whole Paris section?” But they can’t take out the Paris section. I mean, I understand but what can I say? They were good, they sent me to different countries. I’d never been to Johannesburg, I’d never been to Hong Kong. And I’d like to go back to Hong Kong to continue this series I did for RATP. So I’m in discussion with people about going back, because I made images that look like a film noir and my pictures are good. I was there four days, so if I could stay like two weeks, that would be great but it costs a lot of money: you have to send me, you have to send my assistant, you have to pay for my flight, a hotel, food… But I think it’s worth it and a lot of people have lots of money. I wouldn’t mind to go back to Johannesburg and continue also, but there when you work you need security, you need someone with you and I had a toughie with me. Not that I felt uncomfortable once in the five days we were there but I saw people get their gold chains robbed off their neck and a guy chasing someone with a brick. Johannesburg is a tough place and stuff can happen but I liked it very much, it was the first time I ever was in Africa.
Talking about tough places, soon, we are doing a Kickstarter campaign to get funding to go to Osaka, Japan for an exciting project called “Bruce Gilden’s Carnet de Bord ”: I’m going to photograph in a pretty bad neighborhood called Kamagasaki , sort of the one where I photographed in Tokyo but worse, and there will be a comic strip book of my adventures in Kamagasaki. So dear backers, get ready for the campaign!
I never lacked ideas. The difficult thing for me is to get entry because I’m not organized to write the letters, who to contact, all of that. And I’m also like a one-man band. My wife helps me so much because she gets my emails, etc. Aside from being my wife and I love her, the emotional support and everything, she does a lot for me. And she’s working and we have a daughter who’s 23 and who’s quite demanding also. But I’m not good at that. I have plenty of ideas, ideas have never been my problem. Ideas change: you might want to do one thing in 1985, now you don’t. As I said years ago when I was giving a workshop: “If you feel like doing something, do it because either the place changes or you change over time!”. In 1994 I had a grant from Villa Medicis Hors les Murs and another grant from the Japan Foundation to work in Japan. I had wanted to go to Japan for 20 years because I had seen a great show called New Japanese Photography in 1974 at the Museum of Modern Art. It took me 20 years to get there, and Tokyo had completely changed! The pictures I really liked were from the 60’s and the 70’s ,so it was over. Still, I found something there and I really like Go (Trebruk Publishing – 2002), the book I made: it’s printed well, it’s designed well and there are some good pictures, but if I had gone there in the 60’s it would have been easier. In fact, sometimes easy isn’t the best way because when you find nothing there to photograph, if you’re passionate you try to find something, and when you find something it’s usually very good because you really put yourself out to find that.
Guillotine remercie Bruce Gilden, Sophie Gilden et Antoine Kimmerlin (Magnum Photos).