Bruce Gilden is one of the best street photographers currently alive. He is a photographer who has had a deep influence on me and my approach in street photography– especially when I first saw the video of him shooting in the streets of New York City.
Bruce Gilden is also one of the most controversial street photographers– and I also feel one of the most misunderstood.
In this article I will write what I personally learned from his street photography and how I see him as more of a humanistic street photographer (rather than just being an asshole as others might misinterpret him to be).
1. Shoot who you are
What I love most about Gilden is that he is faithful to who he is as a human being in terms of his photography. He doesn’t bullshit around and pretend to be someone he isn’t. Rather, he photographs like he says in his own words… “who he is.”
I think a lot of street photographers starting off often try to imitate the work of other more famous street photographers, without truly understanding their personalities.
For example, everyone tries to imitate the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson (even if their personalities might be totally different). HCB was a shy, introverted man who didn’t like to have his own face photographed. The way in which he shot was reflective of his personality.
Gilden is quite possibly the polar opposite of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Gilden is an extremely personable and social person. He shoots a lot of his work candid, but he also spends a lot of effort interacting and communicating with his subjects (unlike being sneaky just like Henri Cartier-Bresson).
For example, in his most famous video on YouTube he shoots mostly candid photos without the permission of others. However in one shot he took of an old man (who noticed him) he told the man that it was okay and for him to keep walking.
In another video of him shooting in the UK, there is a woman who gets visibly upset for him photographing her. He then explains why he photographed her and why he found her beautiful in her unique way– and then turned the streets into her own personal walkway. It was quite possibly one of the most charming things I’ve ever seen a photographer do.
It is true that Gilden can be quite abrasive. In a workshop that Bellamy Hunt attended with Gilden in Tokyo, Bellamy shared how harsh and direct Gilden could be. At first glance, one could have taken it the wrong way that Gilden just was mean-hearted. However over time, Bellamy began to understood the language of Gilden and how he communicated. If a photo wasn’t any good, Gilden wouldn’t piddy-paddle and sugar-coat his words. Rather, he would call it “shit” if it wasn’t any good.
On the flip side, if Gilden said a shot wasn’t shit it actually meant that it was a half-decent shot.
In terms of Gilden’s street photography shooting style, he shoots who he is. He has a strong and aggressive personality, and shoots at an extremely close range with a 28mm and a flash. He doesn’t do it simply to scare people, but he uses it in an artistic way, angling his flash to highlight the human drama and theater. He does this to highlight the anxiety of his subjects in the city in which he is photographing in.
Gilden’s advice for street photographers is “shoot who we are.” Gilden shoots who he is
in a direct, honest, and aggressive type of manner.
If you find yourself to be quite similar in personality to Gilden– you might also find yourself shooting with a wide-angle lens and getting close to your subjects.
Personally I feel that I relate more with William Klein than Gilden in terms of photographic approach (interacting a lot with my subjects as well as candid shots). I also shoot with a flash not to scare people in the streets, but to simply illuminate them during the day (especially when they are in the shade).
If you find yourself to be a shy and introverted street photographer and you feel uncomfortable interacting with strangers, it is probably not a good idea to start shooting less than a meter away from people and flashing them in the face.
Shoot who you are. Understand your personality– and shoot accordingly. If you don’t like to interact much with subjects and prefer to be candid– shoot more in the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson. If you like to interact with your subjects and stage then on the streets, shoot like William Klein. If you want to work more candidly while also working at a close proximity, you might shoot similar to Gilden or Garry Winogrand.
2. Document humanity
One statement that is quite controversial that I will share is that I feel that Bruce Gilden is more of a humanistic street photographer than someone who just snaps photos on the street.
What do I mean by that? Well, I feel that Gilden’s best book (which isn’t as well known) is “Haiti.” I remember when I first saw the book, I was quite shocked to see the depth, emotion, as well as the socio-political themes that went throughout the book.
Most people who don’t know much about Gilden is that they think he is just a madman who likes to provoke and scare random strangers in New York City.
In his Haiti work, he visited over and over again over the course of around 19 trips between 1984 and 1995- getting to know the people locally and built trust over time.
The images in the book are quite dark and chaotic, and showcase the anxiety of Haiti. Images that come to mind is a woman being pulled in several different directions in a large crowd, a man whose face is obscured and grimacing, as well as a corner where a large group of people almost seem that they are going to collide.
There are also quieter moments in the book, which showcase a man getting his hair cut and even a stray dog that looks over his shoulder with a look of concern and fear.
Overall the book left me with a very strong impression– that which showed more emotion and humanity from the people of Haiti shot from a close proximity. You can see to get the shots that Gilden got, he truly embedded himself into their society. He didn’t just come as a foreign photojournalist, snap photos of the destruction, and just leave. He spent time getting to know the Haiti people and documenting their everyday life- and the viewer feels like a part of the society there.
To compare Gilden’s Haiti book with let’s say the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson
Gilden’s work is much warmer and intimate. Although HCB’s photos are compositionally phenomenal and perfect in some regards– they leave you feeling cold and empty.
I think that street photography’s ultimate goal should be provoking an emotional response from the viewer. Gilden certainly does that with his work– it is something that packs a punch and hits you straight in the gut.
His “Haiti” book especially shows the hard work he took to get to know the Haitian society – over the course of nearly 11 years. His photos provoke emotion, thought, and humanity– what I feel we should all strive to do as street photographers.
3. Create unconventional compositions
I feel that whenever one sees the work of Gilden– what they immediately feel is the energy, rush, and adrenaline of his photos. I feel that part of this has to do with his use of the 28mm lens, flash, and close proximity– but also due to the fact of his unconventional compositions.
For example, many of his photos are taken from extremely low angles, making his subjects look larger than they really are. He often cuts off subjects in odd places in the frame (only showing one half of someone’s face), while still filling the frame.
I learned from Charlie Kirk especially how Gilden pushes the envelope when it comes to compositions. Gilden has been shooting on the streets for over 40 years, and yet still strives to innovate through his work and not just putting his photos directly in the middle of the frame.
Don’t try to make all of your compositions the same and boring. Don’t just put your subject smack dab in the middle of the frame, or just use the rule of thirds. Experiment. Try different angles. Try shots from extremely low angles, or extremely high angles. Throw your camera vertical. Use an off-camera flash to cast unconventional or unusual shadows. Use a 28mm lens (or wider) and get close to your action to fill the frame– while intentionally chopping off people’s faces or placing their heads on the extreme left or bottom of the frame.
Don’t be stuck by the conventional rules of composition – try to break free and innovate.
4. Create mystery
I think the best street photographs are the ones that ask more questions than offer answers. I feel that Gilden’s work does this extremely well.
For example, I think Gilden’s most memorable photos are the ones that have that air of mystery in them. One of my favorite shots of Gilden is of two Yakuza gangsters smoking in Tokyo. One of the gangsters is lighting the cigarette for another
who is looking straight into the eye of Gilden (as if he was caught at a wrong moment).
Another photo also from Tokyo (form Gilden’s “Go” book) is of a man in a fedora looking over at Gilden, reaching into his coat pocket as if he was going to pull out a gun.
An equally puzzling image is of a man lying on the ground, looking as if he has jet-black blood pouring from his head. But in reality, he was just getting his hair dyed.
Don’t just create photos that tell the whole story. Show less, than showing more. Create an air of mystery in your photographs, and let the viewer crave to create a fun little story in their head of what is going on in the scene.
5. Keep going over the same streets and keep breaking new ground
Gilden has been shooting in the same streets of New York City for many decades now– and keeps shooting there. However he hasn’t given up shooting there. I still hear stories of other street photographers who see him shooting on 5th avenue, with his Leica in his right hand and his old-school off-camera Vivitar flash in his left hand.
I think one of the most difficult things in photography is to continue to photograph in the same streets–especially when they are familiar. Not only that, but how can you keep visiting the same places over and over again and break new ground and innovate?
Regardless of where you live, you can make interesting street photographers. Even if you live in a suburb, you can take interesting street photos without people (think of William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander).
I know a lot of street photographers who dream to shoot in big cities like NYC, Paris, or Tokyo.
However the street photographers I know who live in these places also get bored of them as well.
When you are bored of shooting in the same place, try to be like a child and see the streets with new eyes. Imagine you visited your city for the first time as an outsider or tourist. What would you find unique and interesting about the city?
And when you are bored of shooting your own city– don’t just give up. Keep going, over and over again. Be persistent, and you will find the subtle differences and nuances of your city that make it unique. And with enough time dedicated to your street photography in the streets where you live– you will break new ground and innovate and shoot what nobody has shot before in a way nobody has ever shot before.
The best place to shoot street photography is in your own backyard.
I have learned many lessons from Bruce Gilden when it comes to street photography– but I would say that these 5 lessons are what I have distilled from him the last 4 years or so I have been inspired by his photography.
Regardless if you may agree with his approach in street photography or not, he has created incredible bodies of work in New York City, Tokyo, and Haiti– and is someone who hasn’t let up in his photography (he is over 60 and still working non-stop).
I think we can all gain inspiration from him– as someone who has broke ground in street photography and never stops his hustle.
Interviews by Bruce Gilden
- Interview with Bruce Gilden, PBS, The Arts Show (American Suburb X)
- In conversation with Bruce Gilden, by Kate Levy
- Leica & Magnum: The Spirit Lives Here by Bruce Gilden
Videos on Bruce Gilden
Below are some of my favorite videos on Bruce Gilden, a combination of him working the streets and some interviews.
Interview on Haiti
An interview by Catherine Camille Cushman for FLY16x9.
Bruce wanders around the streets of New York City looking for characters
Gilden on shooting and printing
Coney Island: The Maquette
Bruce Gilden “Head On”, presented by British Journal of Photography
Bruce Gilden meets Jake La Motta
Bruce Gilden working in Oxford Street
Bruce has a ball
Books by Bruce Gilden
Gilden’s seminal book on the streets of NYC. Highly recommended.
A lesser-known book by Gilden. Love his use of unusual angles in the book and his proximity to his subjects.
A nice compilation of his photos that is relatively affordable. Not the best print quality, but a good introduction to Gilden’s work if you don’t own any of his books.
One of my favorite book of his on Tokyo. Extremely expensive and rare to find.
His newest book on Coney Island- an incredible body of work. Also very rare and expensive now.
Probably my favorite Gilden book – you can read an in-depth review of the book by Charlie Kirk here. Highly recommend everyone serious about street photography to buy a copy of this for their bookshelf.
Follow Bruce Gilden
What have you learned from Gilden and his approach in street photography? Leave your thoughts in the comments below
and please keep your comments civil. Any anonymous trolls will be banned.