Judging by the poorly worded pitches VICE receives on a daily basis, “street photographer” has become shorthand for “I am a graffiti-enthusiast DJ with a fitted-hat collection, terrible social skills, and an interest in nightclubs and the people who frequent them. Oh, and I have a physical aversion to focusing a camera.” So it’s easy to forget that up until recently, this style of photography had a very different, very literal definition: picture-taking informed by unchecked insanity, spontaneous joy, downtrodden souls, criminal behavior, spewing fire hydrants, and all the other varieties of filth and glory that can be documented by simply walking down an unfamiliar sidewalk.
One of the genre’s forebears—and perhaps its finest practitioner—is Bruce Gilden. His career started on the streets of New York City, where he became obsessed with its peculiar and varied characters. His style gained almost instant recognition from master photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who has heaped praise on Bruce’s work. His subjects have included Japan’s yakuza, grinding poverty in India and Haiti, Irish bookies and gambling addicts, prostitutes, members of bike gangs, and anyone else who caught his discerning eye. VICE was lucky enough to obtain a selection of unpublished work from Bruce, and he kindly agreed to a short chat about his ability to convince just about anyone to stand in front of his lens and be happy about it.
VICE: I’ve read that photography wasn’t necessarily your dream vocation as a child.
Bruce Gilden: I hadn’t initially aspired to be a photographer. I only wanted three things in life: to be a boxer, own a monkey, and play the drums. I couldn’t be a boxer because my father didn’t want me to get my brains knocked out, I couldn’t get a monkey because they’re dirty, and I wasn’t allowed to play the drums because they’re too loud. Years later, I was at college, and I didn’t know what to study. So I quit to take courses in acting and photography. Acting was going all right, but then I took a picture for the first time, developed and printed it myself, and I said, “Jesus Christ, look what I did.” I was astounded at what I had managed to make because the only other thing that I had done well in my life was sports. Blow-Up had just been released, so it suddenly became very trendy to be a photographer. I didn’t love Blow-Up as a movie, but it did put the idea of becoming a photographer into my head.
You approach subjects almost as if they are characters in a book or movie. Have you always looked at people and strangers in this way?
I’ve been obsessed with them my whole life. My father was a character; a racketeer-looking five-foot-seven, 220-pound guy who wore hats, diamond rings, and always had a big cigar in his mouth. I idolized him—he was George Washington, he was a fireman, he was everything until I learned better. I think the whole reason I like to get close to people when I shoot them is because if you had done that to my father he would have knocked you out. Literally. I think it’s my way of getting back at him.
Have you ever gotten into trouble for the way you jump out at people when you first decide to photograph them?
Yeah, once in a while. I’ve had fistfights. I didn’t lose any, but I’ve had a camera broken by a guy who tried to fight me. Ironically I put it down to stop it from getting smashed, but he picked it up and threw it. But generally I have a very good bedside manner, so those things tend not to happen too often. I’m good at picking the right people. I don’t take any shit from anybody though, even at 64 years old. One time I was at Mardi Gras and this biker chick comes up to me and said, “Do you want to shoot a picture of my breasts?” I said, “Sure.” I took the picture and then she grabbed the camera, which was around my neck, and started walking me around the festival. She was joking, but that will never happen again.
I’m very curious about your work with yakuza members. How did you manage to get in with them?
I had a few people make some connections out there, but the yakuza weren’t too hard to track down. With all their tattoos you know who the fuck a yakuza is on the street. I’ve grown up around gangsters so I have a very easy manner with them, I treat them like everybody else. If I have a problem, I tell them and I expect the same back. I only shot about six days over a period of ten months for that book, a lot of them on the street; they didn’t seem to mind much.
You also shot some biker gangs while you were in Japan. Were you worried they would turn out to be imitators like those weird Japanese greasers who are basically cartoons?
Before I got there I did think they would just be kids trying to look like they were something else. But they were full-grown, and what I mean by that is that you could tell who the boss was going to be. It was the same with the muscle, the brains, the teddy-boy fashion type, and who would turn into an alcoholic. It wasn’t just all about the look for them.
What’s next for you?
I’m heading to Haiti again to shoot some more pictures of the ongoing disaster there, and I’m going to be continuing a project I’ve been shooting about foreclosures around America. Don’t even get me started. The whole thing is a scam by the bankers and the government, and I’ve been shooting the victims of these scams. Plus, I’ve got a long-term project on bad guys.
New York, New York, 1982
New Orleans, Louisiana, 1975
New York, New York, 1979
New Orleans, Louisiana, 1975
Lourdes, France, 1992
New York, New York, 1980
New York, New York, 2004
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