This article is written by Ayman Oghanna, an award-winning photographer and journalist based in Istanbul.
I step into his office and humanity explodes. People everywhere. Moments everywhere. An ocean of smiles, frowns, scowls, and yawns drowning the sidewalks. Since 1981, he has worked these Midtown streets and he’s walking them now as he always has, a step or two faster than everybody else, with an eye on everybody else.
Then he sees her. Twenty yards in front of him, a face-lift in the crowd. A slow moving cartoon of a woman with heavy make up and a shock of peroxide in her hair. She looks like old money and, despite the cosmetic surgery, old-age. A character. He moves towards her, fast, biting his bottom lip with concentration. She’s close now, a few feet away; he steps to the right, looks up and pauses as if lost in thought. She’s about to pass his shoulder. And then it happens. He attacks. Turning and swooping into her face. Right in her face. FLASH. She gasps, his camera clicks and a hand shoots to her startled heart.
“I’m the one who shudda jumped,” he says to me, all Brooklyn, with a mischievous grin and a nudge to the ribs, “you see her?” By now she’s gone, staggered halfway towards Broadway, and on we go.
Through the crowds of Midtown we continue, him shooting strangers, up close, with a Leica in one hand and a remote flash in his other, me taking notes. He is Bruce Gilden, street photographer and member of Magnum, the Aston Martin of photo agencies. From the slums of Haiti to Yakuza drinking holes of Japan, Gilden has worked around the world receiving some of photography’s most prestigious awards. He has just finished two potent non-fiction essays, one on white supremacists, the other on foreclosures and a dreadful decaying Detroit. Yet his work is by no means widely acclaimed.
His aggressive, insistent and invasive approach to New York street photography has left many street photographers, who often pride themselves on being invisible, aghast. Also, he uses a flash. An act that venerated Magnum founder, Henri Cartier-Bresson, once equated to “rape.”
Take a tour through photography magazines, forums and blogs and you’ll find some pretty divided opinions on Gilden and his flash-in-your-face-Midtown-street-photography-style that continues to drive his fame, or depending on your point of view, his infamy. Some call him a “jerk,” a “thug,” and a “very nasty person.” This anger has even seeped into his very serious and very sensitive work on Detroit. He’s a man who “only sees the uglyness in people and i out to exploit them” [sic] according to one online commentator following the release of Magnum’s multimedia Detroit foreclosure story. Just take a look at his work, says David duChemin, photographer and creator of forum Pixelated Image:
“Black and white, garish images of people reacting to an aggressive man with a battered Leica. His subjects look like characters, which is what he calls them, and I just don’t get much more from it other than he’s got his own agenda, no regard for the opinions of others or an ethic of his own.”
“I don’t give a shit, okay? I’m as crazy as the day is long,” Gilden says as we turn the corner onto 50th Street. He’s 5 foot 11 inches but walks through people with the presence of a much larger man. A giant. “ Look, I’m good at what I do, if you don’t think I’m good that’s your problem, okay?” Gilden tends to speak fast, without delay, and I stumble writing and keeping up. He slaps a palm to my chest. “Careful. We don’t have the light,” we wait, a truck passes, we carry on.
“I’m good. I worked hard at it – that doesn’t mean worked hard equals ‘your good’- I have a niche. And the niche is me.” He pauses for a second, maybe less, and grins. “ One time I had a fist fight. Right here. I had a fistfight. I’m very territorial, y’know, I don’t move out of people’s way if they’re not paying attention. ”
We walk on. “I gotta tie my shoelace,” Gidlen announces to the street. He hands me his Leica and flash, ties a single knot and then he sees one- a man in a suit, a couple of bodies away. He’s tall with a shaved head and blue eyes, Gilden steps to him. FLASH. No response. The suit doesn’t speak, pause, or blink. He just carries on walking as if nothing happened. “Most people are relaxed,” Gilden says, “ like, 99 good and one bad, the one bad, y’know, he makes up for the…” FLASH. A lady in a red wig and blue anorak, he comes in from her right momentarily trapping her against a clothing store, then continues. She carries on without looking back. “The only people who get mad,” he says, “are those with something to hide.” Gilden believes he can tell who somebody is just by looking at them. Which helps, because he doesn’t just shoot anybody. He may shoot black and white, but it’s colour he’s after. Characters, he says, like himself.
A former editor at Magnum who has known Gilden for years believes that Gilden is a magnet for these characters, they come out for him, it seems, they’re drawn to him. When Gilden works the street he has the air of a wise fisherman- he even dresses like one, with a khaki canvas hat and a vest with deep pockets for his gear- and can spot a character through a crowd 50 people deep. It’s all in the details, he says, “You can’t teach that.”
He speaks with an attention to details too, splitting up sentences with a few words to add colour and definition to the make up of someone, even family. Whenever mentioning his wife, for instance, he’ll say “whose French.” Like: “Since I met my wife, who’s French, I’ve been reading a lot.” Or “my wife, who’s French, laughs at me when I write something,” and “my wife, who’s French, says I have no patience – she should know what patience is when you have to walk the fucking streets.”
Gilden stops to shoot a silver-haired-reptilian-Dean Martin-type-character; he’s as broad as a vending machine, wears a sharp looking suit and has a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The flash didn’t go off and this guy’s too good to let go, “Hey! I gotta get one more,” he tells him. “Be serious, you’re smiling! Don’t Smile. The lounge lizard obeys. FLASH. “Thank you.”
Once Gilden finds a character he likes to get in close with his 24mm lens and shoot however he can. It wasn’t until he was in his 40s, he says, when he figured out why he takes pictures the way he does: “It’s to get back at my father, he says, “because if somebody stuck a camera in his face, like I do with a flash, he would have knocked them out.”
Gilden’s father- 5 foot seven inches, 220 pounds, thick grey hair, big cigar and pinkie rings- was “a mafia-type,” he says, “a Brooklyn racketeer.” He was an overbearing figure, verbally abusive, and Gilden, rough and rugged on the high school sports field, would feel trampled and lacking in confidence at home. Spectres of his father appear in Gilden’s photographs – heavy men in hats, bruisers smoking cigars, Yakuza in Asakusa, skinheads in London, tough guys – Gilden sticks a camera in their face, with a flash. But a photographer should not dwell on such things, he says, “if I was conscious why I was taking photos the whole time I wouldn’t be any good. It would be… Oh God she’s ugly. Right behind you. Can imagine that coming at you? You’d have nightmares.”
Today, Gilden may be 62 – “and a half” – years old, but he pounds the gum-spattered sidewalks of Midtown with the forceful assurance of teenage rebellion. It’s his neighbourhood, the street, and he’s playful and mischievous speeding through the crowd, FLASH, FLASH, FLASH, always keeping an eye out for his characters- “She’s good, and him, the little chauffeur gnome. Guy was a gnome…”
“…This guy looks like he has a fake suntan on. Yellow. Either he got that or hepatitis. Get that man to a Doctor!” Gilden talks fast and walks faster. His wife, who’s French, says that was one of the first things that attracted her to him and his colleagues and friends continue to be amazed by his energy and bombast.
“Now I gotta tie my other shoelace,” he says, “ I think I don’t tie my shoelaces so I gotta take a rest a rest every once in awhile, nah, I’m just stubborn, I don’t like people telling me what to do, y’know? Let’s go this way.” We turn onto 5thAvenue. “My wife, who’s French, is always telling me to double knot my shoes. She’s not the first one, Greg, my assistant, he tells me too. The mother must be glad if she brought any boy home.” Come again? “The ugly girl.”
Fifth Avenue is good for Gilden. Almost every corner has characters and possible characters for him to shoot – eccentric businessmen, swine flu preventing face masks, square- shouldered security guards, tourists toppling under point and shoot cameras set to the improbable task of capturing sky-scraping skyscrapers- it’s all for him.
Gilden continues to photograph and no one seems to mind, often people smile, because it’s hard not to find Gilden endearing. He’s likeable. A colleague who was with him for his recent white supremacist shoot in Arkansas says that there too people responded to him openly and affectionately even after Gilden told them he was a Jew.
A chubby guy on a cycle rickshaw sees Gilden’s Leica and strikes a pose; he’s wearing a silly hat and plastic fairy wings. “The guy’s an angel,” he says walking straight past him. “Fattest angel I ever saw.” Gilden doesn’t shoot exhibitionists or posers; he’s looking to capture something genuine and sincere with his photographs, there’s purity to his work, a strong human element.His recent images of white supremacists have this quality too. The photographs aren’t of caricatures, but people. Even when they are disturbing they are human and compassionate. One image in particular comes to mind, a blonde-haired boy in uniform baring his teeth while a domineering bespectacled patriarch claps a heavy hand upon his shoulder.
“Guess what? My shoelace got open again,” he tells me. “Y’know what? You could do this whole article with the interruptions of shoelaces. You could have that instead of chapters, with little shoelaces as an interlude. I think that’s cute. But, hey, don’t listen to me it’s your article.”
We’re standing on the corner of 57th Street and 5th Avenue talking about England. “You got a bunch of assholes in England, that’s for sure,” Gilden says while a homeless advocate asks for change behind a white picnic table. “ I get on better with the English than the French, because they’re rougher y’know? Not that you don’t get rough French… One sec.” He’s spotted something and moves fast. I look up to see three men strolling south.
At their head is a short solid tree- trunk of a man. He has the look of a tyrant, with dark despotic eyes and an expensive tailor-made suit. A minder towers over each of his shoulders, both very tall, both very serious. International gangster types. Bad guys. Villains. Gilden heads straight for them, almost running. He knocks into a woman on the way, she gasps. “Sorry,” he says, eyes still focused on the task ahead. He takes a few quick steps to the left. And he’s there. FLASH. Heads turn. Hairs stand up.
“You are not allowed,” says a voice in an unclear accent. It’s the tyrant. He steps to Gilden with an olive fist clenched to his side.
“I’m allowed,” Gilden flatly tells him. The tyrant steps closer, inches away. “You are not allowed.” Gilden doesn’t move. “I am allowed, “ he shoots back. One of the tyrant’s minders, a tall slick 40-something-Tony Curtis- looking-individual approaches telling Gilden in a different, but equally indistinguishable, accent that he cannot take pictures. Gilden ignores him. He speaks straight to the tyrant, “Do what you want. Get a cop, I’m allowed,” he says firmly.
“You are allowed?” the Tyrant says, reaching into his inside pocket. “Okay, I will show it to you which way you are allowed.” He pulls out a cell phone.
“Let’s do it,” Gilden tells him.
“I will do it,” the tyrant says, “ I will arrest you.”
“Yeah? DO IT!!” Gilden shouts. The Tony Curtis character raises his hands. “Don’t make publicity,” the tyrant says in a strained voice, “I will–”
“–You’re ALLOWED TO TAKE PICTURES,” Gilden snarls over him with all the righteous indignation he can muster. “Don’t tell me what I can do in this country.”
“YOU’RE RUBBISH!!” The tyrant yells.
“Oh! I’m rubbish,” Gilden says, “well, YOU’RE WORST RUBBISH THAN ME.” The tyrant spasms and lets out a short and incomprehensible bark.
By now, the other minder, a soaring Egyptian looking man with a neatly trimmed moustache, is walking towards Gilden like he’s about to do something. Gilden doesn’t move and the minder is almost on him, but then something happens. He hesitates. He looks down at Gilden, his Leica, his fishing hat, his untied shoelace and a flash of confusion crosses his eyes. Who is this guy? Gilden stands his ground. The minder steps back. Irate and still clutching his phone, the tyrant retreats to giving Gilden a warning before walking away: “Where you will step, I will following.”
Gilden isn’t paying attention. He’s turned to the small audience of perplexed onlookers that has gathered around him, “Oh I’m rubbish he says. I’m rubbish.” The Tony Curtis looking minder has stayed on He asks Gilden:
“Why can’t you just be cool and say ‘okay, I don’t have to take the picture’?”
“Okay, I apologise,” Gilden says, “but I apologise to you and not to him.”
“But — ”
Gilden speaks over him, “Look, I don’t like being called rubbish okay?”
“But,” the minder says, “because you confront him he gets upset.”
Gilden smiles. “This is the street,” he says.
Calmly the minder raises a finger to make a point, “ I know you have a right, but he doesn’t like to have his picture taken. You should respect that.” Gilden nods in agreement.
“If only I would have known that before,” he sighs, “I wouldn’t have taken his picture…. But, hey, I got his picture already so what can I say?” He shrugs and there it is again, the mischievous Gilden grin. The minder is silent. “Look,” Gilden tells him, “I’m an artist type, not a newspaper guy. I don’t care who he is, what he is.”
“I see,” the minder says, “you want to capture the image when nobody knows it. So you take it by surprise.” Gilden nods a little taken aback that this guy gets it. “If you would have asked him first,” the minder says, “he would have had the chance to say, no, he doesn’t want to.”
“Nah. That’s not my style.”
“ I know,” the minder says. They part ways. Gilden almost gets a smile out of him.
We’re walking really fast now, heading towards Times Square. “Fucking guy, I was getting mad,” Gilden says. He’s full of vigour, taking a lot of photographs, “when I get mad I get better,” he tells me. “I work from negative energy,” FLASH he’s crouched low on the sidewalk shooting a tall balding man with hunched shoulders.
“Can’t believe that fucking guy called me rubbish,” he says to me standing up. “You’re allowed to photograph on the street okay? It’s an art form okay?” It’s been a few minutes since his encounter with the tyrant and he’s still riled up. “That kind of guy could be a pain the ass for me though, because he calls up two heavy guys, they could beat the living shit of you,” I stop to glance over my shoulder. He puts a hand on my arm,“ I’m looking for him, don’t worry.”
“Nice camera!” says an arty middle-aged man in tortoise shell glasses. He’s wearing a vintage camera around his neck.
“Yeah? You too –whadda ya shoot?” Gilden asks.
“Nouns,” the arty man replies.
“Nouns? What the fuck are nouns?”
“People, places and things.”
“Woah! You’re too slick for me,” Gilden smiles, “Good luck to ya.”
The adrenaline hasn’t left us yet and we’re both still thinking about the tyrant, we should be crossing over 48th street, but Gilden is preoccupied. He stops.
“Why do you think I do what I do? Why do you think I stand up to people like that?” I struggle to answer. “Because they think they are better than everybody else and I fuck em where they breathe. They think they have the money and they think they can get away with it. That’s what annoyed me about the foreclosures thing – the government, the banks, it was a total scam and we let them get away with it y’know? I don’t mean America, I mean the world. ” He looks me in the eye and jabs a finger into my chest, “I have that sense of morality okay? People say I don’t, but I do.”
He keeps jabbing his finger to make his point, “I don’t look to soften it okay? I look to punch into the fucking solar plexus because that’s who I am. If I was weak they would have gone nuts on me. But I’m not weak. I’m 62-and-a half-years-old, I have an irregular heartbeat, a double hernia fractured knuckles…. And I hate people like that. Okay?”
Okay. I believe him, I do. We walk towards Times Square, where visual noise meets human traffic. Pigeons swoop, vehicles honk and policemen swagger. Outside Hotel Renaissance an old man steps from a limousine in black tie. Gilden nudges me, “Let’s see if he gets mad. Ready?” FLASH
Follow Bruce Gilden
AYMAN OGHANNA is an award-winning photographer and journalist.
A British Iraqi, born and raised in London, he now works in the Arab World. Ayman has worked in Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan. His photography, writing and video reportage have been published by The New York Times, The Economist, Liberation, Polka, TIME and Al Jazeera. He is based in Istanbul, but always moving.
If you’re interested in Bruce Gilden and his work, check out my article on him: 5 Lessons Bruce Gilden Has Taught Me About Street Photography