Bruce Gilden is not just a legendary photographer, but also a legend in the bad reputation department for his infamously rude and aggressive behavior. Looking at the 70-year-old standing there in his fleece jacket and wooly hat, it’s really hard to see how that came about. In conversation, he is charming, entertaining, and moving. A working-class kid raised in New York, over the past 40 years Gilden has worked his way into the Magnum agency and prestigious museums with his street photography. His latest work, “FACE”, marks a new departure in his work – and also in his biography.
Mr. Gilden, you have spent your life photographing the streets of New York. Today, you live in Beacon, one and a half hours north of New York. What happened?
I’m from Brooklyn originally, but have nearly always lived in Manhattan since the 1970s. A year ago, my wife and I moved to the country. I had had enough of New York. I had stopped shooting there.
Why? You rose to fame as a street photographer.
You cannot photograph the streets forever. I had done nothing else since 1981. But now it doesn’t interest me anymore because the people these days aren’t as interesting as they used to be.
How have the streets of New York changed over the decades?
When I moved to Soho in the early 1970s, it was an empty place. The only people hanging out there were artists and wannabe artists. It was great there, I was young. I moved to Brooklyn with my first wife and back to Soho after we separated, in 1979. I’ve lived in the same loft there ever since. But I don’t like the people in the neighborhood anymore. Too many financial types, arrogant people who bump into you because they’re staring at their cell phones and then don’t bother to apologize. And I am pretty brutal on the street.
Brutal? What do you mean?
Well, when I was five, I wanted to be a boxer. Let’s put it this way: I’m rough and ready. On jobs and with women I am the perfect gentleman, but if someone gets in my face on the street, I handle things my way.
Which would be?
Violence (He smiles to himself). Not toward people I know and who understand me. But I cannot bear the kind of people who think they can spend all day sitting at a desk and then tell me what’s going on in the world. I’ve been to Haiti 22 times, I’ve been with the Yakuza. I know what’s what. And I know I’m not perfect. But I am honest.
Scuffles apart, the way you moved with your camera on the street is legendary. You totally pounced on people.
You have to be fast on the street. Particularly when you photograph the way I do, without trimming the images. It takes discipline you have just seconds for the composition. The people were always moving, of course. So I had to fling myself in front of them or crouch down quickly with my camera and handheld flash. I was a good athlete, though.
Does turning your back on the streets have something to do with age?
Of course it does. Photography is a physical thing. I’m still fast, but not as fast as I used to be. And anyway, I was bored. You start to repeat yourself.
Your latest series, “FACE”, consists entirely of portraits. And they are in color, whereas you usually only work in black and white. Why?
I already had the idea for Face 20 years ago. At the time, I was working with mugshots from the early 19th century – photos of felons. I find them fascinating! To be honest, I just wanted to do something different, hence the format and the color. And I find portraits easier.
Reactions to “FACE” have been mixed. Some critics are accusing you of creating “poverty porn.”
What was it the photographer Robert Frank said? It’s important to see what is invisible to others. I looked around me at fairs and agricultural shows. I love the people I photographed there. A photo should have a powerful emotional value. And my pictures do.
You also show an aspect of American reality. The hard, for some even the ugly, side of it.
To me, these people are interesting because they are invisible. There are people who cannot bear to look at these photos. But if they don’t want to look at them, how can you help them?
Is that what you aim to do with your pictures – help?
No! I’m not a humanitarian photographer. I want to shine a light on these people. When I showed her picture to one of the women in Face, she said: I look beautiful. What a compliment! And plus, I could be one of these people myself.
How do you mean? That you see yourself in your subjects?
Yes, the photographs are actually of myself – or rather, a person I could have become. I think that’s why I feel so drawn to these characters, to this milieu. Because it is my own. I speak their language. It’s my father’s language. He was a gangster type.
A gangster? Or a gangster type?
It was 1940s’ Brooklyn, so I guess he was a gangster. He was a brutal man. Once he came in and pointed his gun at me, for fun. When I look at my old photos of New York, I see my father. I photographed him hundreds of times without ever photographing him. Just men that looked like him. My search for him drove me out of the house over and over again.
Would you have stayed home otherwise?
Yes, because I’m shy. I became a photographer so that I wouldn’t have to talk with people.
But what does that have to do with your father?
I think my shyness comes from never having anyone who believed in me. When your father puts you down the whole time, it stays with you. For instance, I was a good baseball player. My father hated sports. He never came to one of my games.
He wasn’t proud of you?
Maybe he was proud but he didn’t know how to show love. I have the same problem with my daughter, who also works creatively. She would like me to help her, to build her self-confidence, but I think that as an artist she needs to make her own mind up what she wants.
Did you always know what you wanted?
No, I only started looking at art when I was 17. I don’t have an education in the classical sense, which is why I wanted to learn. But college was not for me. Then I decided to become an actor. But when I recited Shakespeare in my Brooklyn accent, it was obvious nothing would come of that. In the end, I took a photography course. The moment I saw my first picture, I knew that was it! Even though it was a photo of a unicorn.
I can see by looking at a person’s knuckles whether or not they have a violent streak.
You are a member of the Magnum photo agency and have had exhibitions all over the world; your street photography just like your images of Haiti before and after the earthquake are legendary. Do you feel you’ve made it, that you belong?
No, I’m an outsider and I always will be. These days, though, that’s something I’m proud of. When you’re young, it hurts. I was always the kid the other mothers would call a “bad influence” even though I just didn’t have the right manners. I would come right out and say what I thought. I still do. I’m a survivor.
What do you mean by that?
I had a violent father and my mother was an alcoholic; she killed herself. Cocaine almost killed me and I looked down the barrel of a gun more than once. But I believe that all of that is what makes my pictures so good. Because I am a good observer. I see everything. I can tell by looking at a person’s knuckles whether or not they have a violent streak.
You said your early photos were about your father. What is your new series, “FACE”, about?
My mother. My father had an influence on me, but my mother’s was perhaps even greater. And I only get that now, at age 70.
Why did it take so long?
I never loved her. I thought she was weak. And I don’t mean that she cried too much. It was more that I felt she should have given my father more direction.
Do you see her in your pictures, too?
Oh yes. In one, it’s a very sad picture. Do you want to see it?
Gilden takes a book out of the bureau, Face. He leafs through and finds a woman with deep lines on her face, brown bangs and bright blue eyes.
That’s her. (He starts to weep.)
What was in your mind when you photographed her?
It was as though my mother was looking down on me. The woman was crazy, moving the whole time. And my camera focuses really slowly. Even so, the very first image was needle sharp. That’s when I realized that it really was about my mother. That’s why I can’t stand it when people feel the compunction to put in their two cents. I have more than one cross to bear. And if I can turn that whole burden to my advantage in my photography, then others can do the same. These photos are my life.”