Bruce Gilden: Asshole or Genius?

Bruce Gilden
Bruce Gilden

On the day of the Leica Magnum Paris event, I had the huge pleasure of meeting Bruce Gilden. After the official product announcements of the Leica M9-P and the 21mm f/3.5 Elmarit lens, I headed upstairs for some small appetizers and some wine. After chatting it up with some fellow photographers and bloggers from the event, I spotted Bruce from the corner of my eye. My hands got clammy, and I could feel the adrenaline flowing through my body. It was my hero—Bruce Gilden in person! I knew that I had to talk to him.

The second he was about to pass my left shoulder, I politely leaned in and asked, “Excuse me, are you Bruce Gilden?” He then said with a grin in his scruffy Brooklyn accent, “Yeah I’m Bruce Gilden—who are you?” I then introduced myself that I was a street photographer and blogger from Los Angeles and that I was a huge fan of his work. He then told me, “Oh—I think I know who you are.” My blood froze. How could someone like Bruce Gilden know who I was? I then asked him how he knew me and he told me, “Yeah a guy named Charlie in my workshop told me about you. He said to keep my eyes open for this overly enthusiastic Asian guy.” I then grinned and started to chat with him.

Bruce Gilden is often a misunderstood street photographer. Many of you have seen his WNYC Street Shots video in which he is using flash street photography in the streets of NYC. Armed with a Leica M6, a 21mm lens, and a flash—he roams the city and looks for people whom he calls “characters.” Whenever he sees someone he wants to shoot, he will crouch right in front of them and extend his remote flash above his head and capture their photo.

His style is controversial, and many people reckon him to a creep, a dick, or an asshole. They think that all he likes to do is scare people and capture their scared reactions. However if you pay attention to what he says, he reckons to the people he shoots as “his friends”. In talking to Bruce in person, he made that very clear as well. He told me, “I’m not out there to scare people” – and he discussed how he felt this urge to capture the faces of those around him.

In-fact he told me of a funny story when he was in the UK and shot a photo (without flash) of a young couple—one of them being a punky looking guy. Rather than getting upset for him taking their photo, they actually thought he was taking a photo of a child around 10 meters behind them. The punky looking guy then called Bruce a “pedophile” and then threatened to call the cops. Bruce then leaned over to the guy and said, “You know what… I think you’re a fucking pedophile.” The punk then looked around, and walked away. Talk about balls.

Although Bruce Gilden is over 60 years old and he claims that his “pace is slowing down”, he is full of energy and truly a character himself. Something that I never knew is that when he was in school, he actually studied acting. Although this surprised me a bit (I never knew that), but it made a ton of sense. If anyone has ever seen Bruce on video, he really knows how to put on a show and is able to show his charisma and passion through his actions and words. With his grey hair slicked back and his classic photography vest on, the man is truly something else. Oh yeah, did you also know that he shoots fashion as well?

USA. Queens, New York. 2005. Fashion shoot. Mafia funeral.
USA. Queens, New York. 2005. Fashion shoot. Mafia funeral.

As of late, Bruce Gilden and Charlie Kirk have influenced my style and street photography interests quite a bit. Part of it first arose as an attempt for myself to build more courage when shooting strangers in the streets. The other part of it was I was fascinated with the idea of getting really close to my subjects, and being able to capture an image that truly showed their souls. I almost reckon my street photography of that of Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall was a researcher who was absolutely fascinated with chimpanzees and wanted to learn more about them. However rather than doing what was conventional (studying them from afar) she actually lived with them and become a part of their tribe. This way, she was able to get incredibly close to the chimpanzee and got to know them on a more personal level (and even gave them individual names). Her controversial yet effective research brought a wealth of knowledge about the lives of chimpanzee. In getting close when shooting street photography, I wish to do the same as well.

Sapporo - Charlie Kirk
Sapporo - Charlie Kirk

Shooting street photography with a flash fascinates me for several reasons. First of all, it is something unconventional and gives you amazing depth in your images. When you are in the shade or the darkness, flash is able to illuminate your subjects and give them a fourth dimension. Not only can you see the creases in their face, the detail in their hair, or the subtleties in the fabric they are wearing—you also get a different look and feel which makes you feel closer to the subjects.

Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t jump back in horror when you take a flash photo of them. In-fact, 90% of them don’t seem to notice or care. I only get weird looks from them, and I walk on as if nothing happened. For the rest of the 10% who do approach me and asking me what I am doing, I tell them that they have a beautiful face or a fascinating article of clothing. I then show them my image to show them I mean no harm, and 99% of the people out of those 10% say “ok” and move along. Now the other 1% get pissed off and ask me to delete the images—of which I typically do. Unless the photo is really good, I don’t make a case to argue (only a tiny percentage of my shots are keepers).

"Headlock" - Paris, Eric Kim
"Headlock" - Paris, Eric Kim

So what is my next step? Well I still got the Leica M9 on hand, and an old Canon flash at home. Charlie Kirk was kind enough to show me the technical settings behind shooting flash during night. For those of you who are curious, it is something like this (forgive me Charlie if this isn’t accurate).

  • ISO 400-800 (depending on lighting)
  • Aperture: f/8
  • Focusing distance (1.2 meters)
  • Remote Flash Settings (Set these manually to whatever settings you have on your camera)

And that’s it—pretty basic stuff!

I plan on experimenting more with street photography during night with a flash—and trying hard to evolve and define my own style. It is fascinating how my street photography has evolved—from wide-angle juxtapositions, to getting close to people, and then now using flash. I am excited for the next chapter in my street photography, and stay posted ;)

Myself and Bruce Gilden at Leica Magnum Paris

So what is your take on Bruce Gilden and flash street photography? Let me know by leaving a comment below—and feel free to ask any other questions too!

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