Photo by Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos
What is Bruce Gilden doing?
The short answer is, I don’t know.
I see Bruce every day. I talk to him about his work, about the evolving photography industry, about art in general—he even throws me poignant nuggets of sagely wisdom dressed up in Brooklyn street clothes from time to time—and yet I still haven’t completely figured out the nature of the rabid photographic quest he’s on. I still can’t quite see the outline of the ghost he’s chasing.
From what I’ve heard at Magnum, Bruce has always been a bulldog. I won’t give the full bio here, but he grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and is as evidently a product of New York as his accent. He’s full of stories, funny and crass ones that he punctuates with the kind of buoyant laughter that only exists in someone who is a little surprised to still be around.
Critics have denounced his process—one of his nicknames is "the Grasshopper” because of the way he surprises pedestrians with a hop and flash in the face. Some have condemned his mentality, as Bruce is known for capturing a certain brand of capital-U Ugly that often gets him placed in the same photographic boat as Diane Arbus, the medium's reference point for images of the alienated. Bruce is an aggressive, hungry, singularly focused perfectionist. But that really explains nothing; there are many aggressive, hungry, singularly focused perfectionists.
Bruce Gilden is Bruce Gilden, a polarizing but hugely influential character in photographic history, because what lies at the center of his intense singular focus is totally enigmatic. What he’s after in his art—whether it’s a particular feeling or notion or element of humanity, or a quiddity of modern culture, or an aesthetic manifestation of the human condition, or some below-the-surface commonality—is something he certainly can’t describe with words, but something he stalks and hunts nonetheless.
Take Bruce’s work on Magnum’s Postcards from America project, which led to his 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship and some of which was featured in VICE just a few months ago. It’s a series of portraits of FACES; if you click the link, you’ll understand why the capitalization of FACES is appropriate. Bruce gets very close for these captures, and the camera isn’t, as they say, “forgiving.” He gets so close that any smudge of lipstick or swollen hair follicle is not only visible but highlighted, as much a part of the photograph as the subject’s facial expression or eye color.
But as close as Bruce gets, I can’t help thinking that part of him wants to get even closer, that the man behind the lens wants even more, that he’d dive into those lipstick smudges and bury himself in those swollen hair follicles if he thought it would make for good pictures.
Photo by Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos
To me, it’s not the roughness or vulgarity of Bruce’s photographs that give the work life; the supposed “ugliness” is more correlative than causative. The raw power of the photographs is born out of their urgency, their quiet panic to show us something. I look at the FACES, at the classic New York street captures for which he became famous, or even at the sometimes hilarious Coney Island work, and I can hear a silent scream, like a mute desperately trying to convey to me, “THE FUCKING TOWN IS ON FIRE!” Bruce’s photographs are, in a way, like that mute’s crude sign language: a series of wild gesticulations and vigorous pointing that could be summed up with a single word—“LOOK!”
Bruce always says that in a great street photograph you should be able to “smell the street.” I’d say that in a great Bruce Gilden photograph, you should be able to smell the smoke. It doesn’t matter that we’ll never really find out what the hell it is that’s burning. There’s a mastery in the process and a magic in the trying.