This is Part 2 of our interview with Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden. To start from the beginning, read In Your Face: An Interview with Bruce Gilden (Part 1) here.
Brooklyn-born photographer Bruce Gilden (1948) gets right in your face. Famous for his black and white street photography taken with a flash at arm’s length from his subjects, Gilden has unapologetically pursued photography that tries to bare souls, ready or not. His latest work, Face, to be released as a book from Dewi Lewis Publishing in August, gets even closer – and this time, in colour. Bruce Gilden speaks here with Katherine Oktober Matthews about finding yourself in other people, demanding more of your photos and yourself, and the limitations of getting older as a street photographer.
What’s the biggest reward for you of this current style of photography, or this phase you’re in now?
Well, I tell you, this may be my best photography ever. It’s very strong, and the pictures have gotten stronger. In other words, when I started doing it, I was really fascinated and I thought I was doing well, but as I’ve gone on, it’s gotten more intense and stronger, cause now I’m more demanding.
Demanding of yourself or of the pictures?
Of the pictures. I’m always demanding of myself. Cause as you do things, you learn. I’ve stopped doing candid photography in New York City, because I was getting too many popped hamstrings lunging at people. As you’re older, your body isn’t as loose as it was when you were younger, and you have to make more unnatural movements, so sometimes things break. And I just figured I’m repeating myself, so what’s the sense?
I’ve been working on this project about two years, and I saw that the pictures are getting stronger, so I’m more demanding of what’s good. But that’s true with any essay. For example, if I go to Haiti. I was there 22 times in my life, so after the first trip I said, “Oh, this is pretty good!” And it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that, you do better as you go along because you have more experience in the place, you know what you can get out of the place. And it’s the same thing with the portraits.
At this point in your career – with all the publications, exhibitions, accolades and attaboys – do you still feel like you have something to prove?
Of course, I always do. My family was totally a mess, and I guess that’s where the love of the underdog comes from. When I was 5, I wanted to be a boxer, and my father was a tough guy, he didn’t want me to be a boxer cause I’ll get my brains knocked in. I wanted to play the drums, and I wanted a monkey. Emotionally I was beaten up as a kid. I had a tough upbringing. My pictures are an outgrowth of all that. When you’re a child since your own upbringing is the only one you know, you tend to think that other people are just like you, but But then you realize when you get older that they’re not. I was wise enough to cut myself loose from it, but I have that inside of me. You know, that anger. That I’ll always have. But I’m with my wife now 25 years, we have a very nice loving and caring relationship, I have a daughter who’s 22, I have three cats I play with and that I’m nice to. So, you know, I can look myself in the mirror. I came a long way.
I’ll tell you something. I read years ago that you can photograph or do anything with love or with passion. Love tends to last longer, people with passion burn out. I haven’t burned out yet, so I must be something. I think about that sometimes. Cause it’s difficult to keep up the passion.
I know my limits. That’s what you also have to know when you’re older. I can’t go out like I used to, for ten hours a day, every day for three months. I know when to say “ok I’m tired, that’s it”, because I walk a lot. Like, my assistant said, “I can’t keep up with you and I’m 30! I can’t imagine what you were like when you were my age.” He’s right. But that’s because I’m driven. But – I take plenty of time off, so I don’t have to be out there every day. When I’m not out, I’m not looking for pictures.
I’ve never chosen a place to live where I intended to photograph.
Well it’s good to know you can ‘turn it off’. What’s it like when you’re walking down the street without a camera in your hand?
Well, when you have a camera, there’s more pressure. The difference is, I don’t carry a camera with me all the time. Now, I’m looser. I still have my rules of the road, like if you’re not paying attention, look out. But I’m looser. I don’t think pictures, you know? I used to go uptown or midtown to take my pictures, and now I just stay mostly downtown. I never photographed where I lived. And maybe if I’ve lived in some crazy place in god-knows-where I would, but I’ve never chosen a place to live where I intended to photograph. I might have to go a mile or two miles, but I think that‘s a conscious decision. This way, when you walk out your door, you don’t feel that you’re missing something, you know. No, you need rest, I don’t care who you are. I don’t think you can be on all the time. And also, I challenge myself, I’m not challenged by the others.
How has being a part of Magnum influenced you?
There are some good photographers in Magnum, but, influence me? I think 'influence' is the wrong word. When I started photography, there were photographers who influenced me, but now I’m my own man. I’m a composite of all those people whose work I admired, but I made it my own. I took a little from here, a little from there, a little from there, a little from there, and then it became Bruce Gilden.
I think you would maybe get a different answer from someone who was 22 who joined Magnum. But most people who join magnum are pretty set in their ways anyway. You know what I mean? It’s a tough group. Otherwise you’d be overwhelmed. You have to have your feet planted in the right direction. You gotta know who you are, otherwise… If you don’t know who you are, you’re not going to make good pictures anyway. If you can’t recognize what a good picture is, how can you take good pictures? And if you’re not critical, I don’t see how you can be a good photographer.
What gives you inspiration to keep working, from one thing to the next, each day?
Cause you’re only as good as what you did yesterday. Or today. I mean, you have to keep going. There have been times where, for a few years, I didn’t do that much work, or anything interesting. And I know it. Artists have periods that are strong when you do a lot of good work, and then you have other periods that are totally devoid of good work. It’s just natural. Just think of all the photographers that you like, I’m sure some work you like better than others that they’ve done. Not all their work is strong, or good, or as good.
Artists have periods that are strong when you do a lot of good work, and then you have other periods that are totally devoid of good work. It’s just natural.
And, don’t forget when you get older, you’re going against time. There’s a time and a place. If I can’t do good pictures any longer, I quit, ok? But there’s also the thing on the other side – that you don’t want to admit that you’re old. But I admit that I’m old. I mean, I function well, but I changed. I started to do the portraits, because I can’t beat up my legs. I was very rough on my legs. Fortunately I’ve been blessed with a pretty athletic and good body, for not getting hurt and bending low – but there are changes. You have to be smart enough to realize what you can do and what you can’t do. It’s like someone who’s 70 who dresses like they’re 20. They look like they’re a shmuck! It’s the same thing here. Even if you wanted to do candid shots you have to figure out a way that you can do it in relation to your age – I’m talking totally about a physical thing now.
So… I’ve learned. It works for me up to this point. Who knows how far it can go. Once I lose the desire, then I’m done. It’s like love: if you don’t have it anymore, you just have to realize you can’t force it.
Bruce Gilden's book Face will be published by Dewi Lewis and is scheduled out for August 2015.