Bruce Gilden is arguably the most acclaimed street photographer working today and one of the very few left standing. How many genuinely well-known living street photographers can you name? Not many, I suspect (if any).
Producing street photographs that stand out today is incredibly difficult for a number of reasons: firstly, street photography is one of the most accessible and therefore popular genres. The number of new images being produced is staggering and they exist alongside a rich history of iconic images that have arguably ‘already been done’. On top of this, we have the prevailing climate within photography, where ‘contemporary edge’, ‘impact’ and ‘shock factor’ are perhaps prerequisites for being visible at all. I would suggest that this is why constructed, conceptual pieces purporting to be ‘reflections of reality’ have become the order of the day – ordinary life lacks the readily available ‘oomph’ needed to arrest viewers’ eyeballs. See article on Troilo being stripped of his World Press award.
What choices does this leave for Gilden and his ilk? Difficult choices, I’d say.
Bruce Gilden, who is represented by Magnum, possesses a distinctive style that (unsurprisingly) revolves around pushing the envelop right to the edge of what is generally considered acceptable. He is known for his ambush approach, lurching into range with a Leica and 28mm lens, often using a hand-held flash to illuminate his subject from up close. This methodology remains controversial and seems to yield fans and critics in equal measure. You can see Erik Kim’s article on Bruce Gilden here and a transparently critical piece on Bruce Gilden by medium.com here).
Some argue he is a genius, while others decry that he is nothing short of a predator! As for my own view, I wasn’t sure then and after seeing his recent body of work, ‘Face’, I am not sure now; however, my doubts are deepening. The trouble is that I am stuck with a case of cognitive dissonance – a phrase that describes the state of affairs when you hold conflicting beliefs about something at the same time, which may result from processing conflicting pieces of information that cannot be reconciled. Here is why: Bruce Gilden talks well and his interviews are insightful and enjoyable. He is clearly an intelligent man, whose casual brashness is punctuated by thrusts of sensitivity, humility and gentleness that stand out all the more clearly because of the contrast. And then there are his photographs, which catch people off-guard, usually looking strange, ungainly, awkward, shocked, upset, aloof, peculiar or in other ways ‘disadvantaged’. Its certainly not an average person he appears to look for, nor an average moment in which he aims to depict them. But what’s new here. In general terms, that’s quite typical.
In interviews, Gilden shares his upbringing, which he describes as far from privileged. Instead, it was characterized by the anonymous struggle associated with relative poverty. According to this slate.com article on Bruce Gilden, he has framed his body of work, ‘Face’, as about recognizing the most overlooked members of society, commenting, “the basis of this project is to show people who are left behind…. a lot of these people are invisible and people don’t want to look at them and if you don’t look at them, how can you help them?” And wow, have these photos not brought these faces bursting onto our computer screens?
Yet still, I am left feeling very uncomfortable and it is not because I find the faces shocking or painful to look at – far from it. It is because I feel that I am being offered up what feels like a deliberate orchestrated sideshow, where the subjects are being shown in the most appalling light possible. What’s more, they are just faces. There is no story. They are all shot in the same way, rendering each as a two-dimensional caricature, boxed and bundled just like the last. The actual person – the human being – seems surplus to requirements, even down to the lighting and facial expressions. My final concern is that this body of work purports to be about humanistic recognition and support, such that my use of the word ‘sideshow’ inherently validates the artist’s intent and depicts the critic as ‘part the problem’. Maybe I am too cynical and I am seeing games here that do not exist.
Is this work dramatic and attention grabbing? Yes. Is it being talked about? Yes. Is it distinctive? Yes. One could therefore argue that this is work that entirely justifies Gilden’s profile and that the ends justify the means, assuming there is a back-end effort to drive change. But is there, or is it just another visual incarnation designed to deliver ‘OMG!’ responses from a global audience desensitized by a constantly rising thresholds of tolerance to shocking photographs? I am still undecided, but cannot shake the nagging concern that Gilden’s gilding (!) is just a brilliantly simple cover story (that cannot be disproved) justifying photographic work that exploits the vulnerable in order to generate business. If a less famous photographer lacking support of the clout that Magnum Photos possesses were to have shot the same body of work, what would people be saying now? I doubt it would be kind.
If there is one thing I do know at the end of this, its that irrespective of the truth behind of it all, he continues to produce work that reinforces his tenure at the top of the genre. After all, here I am thinking about it and writing about it and to be honest, I appreciate that a great deal. What I still don’t know is whether I can embrace his work with an easy conscience.