Bruce Gilden in conversation with Christine Redmond
Bruce Gilden's images were on show at the Gallery of Photography, 9th July - 10th August, 1997
CR: Bruce why did you start taking photographs?
BG: I was in college and I decided that I wanted to do something other than go to University, so I took up acting and photography. You have to understand that at that time the film Blowup was out so photography was in vogue. However I had no technical expertise so during the acting course my teacher was absent and his assistant got up and performed a text from Shakespeare. Having a heavy Brooklyn accent I realised acting was not for me. At the same time I was taking a night course in basic photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and when I saw my first print come up in the developer I was hooked.
CR: So what next?
BG: I drove a taxi cab for four years to support my photography and then I found that I was working so hard I had no time for my photographic work, so I quit and I drove a truck for my father working only a few days a week which gave me time.
CR: At this time Bruce, in the early stages, were you working the streets?
BG: Yes, I always was attracted to the streets, I guess because as a child I looked out of my second story window at a very active street life in Brooklyn, also since I am more comfortable going to areas where there are crowds of people and I do not need permission, in other words I can just start photographing. I started my first long term personal project in Coney Island in 1968. All my projects started in this way. I choose to work in this way. If the area is fertile and I feel comfortable, I can make work.
CR: Who was your major influence?
BG: Lisette Model was a major influence. Her work had very strong forms, was graphically very strong, but she also had strong emotional content in the pictures. She liked pictures, she liked people who had character. In my own work the further I go into photography, the closer I get and I think by getting closer I say more, so I have a smaller canvas to work with and it is difficult to get good pictures. But when I do, they really say a lot about man and the spirit or about society. Someone said that my pictures are very spiritual. And I agree with that. Not everyone can deal with that because they don't want to see the soul. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it also means that the people looking don't want to expose themselves. They feel threatened and like when I first started in photography, Robert Capa said if it's not good enough, you're not close enough and I keep getting closer and closer. But of course I don't think I'd ever get so close to where the picture would become totally abstract.
CR: Bruce, you have just won the European Publishers Award for photography for 1996. Tell me about that.
BG: I won the award for my study on the Haitian spirit. The benefit of winning the award is that the book gets published in six different languages and widely distributed in Europe and America.
CR: How long did you spend in Haiti?
BG: I started working there in 1984 and visited about sixteen times. Each trip I spent about three weeks. I work intuitively and either I like places or I don't - photographically. I knew it was for me, it's my second country. But also every time I went back, I discovered something new. I have a tendency to work like a bulldog. I find an area that could be good for me and I go there and I go there and I go there. It is very tough because you are walking the same streets or in the same area all the time and then you start to get exhausted by it because you feel the results are not that good any longer. But in defence of that, how many good pictures does anyone get in a year? It's a very slow process. In photography it is very easy to take an okay picture but it is very hard to take a wonderful picture. Certain people I know go with a concept, I know what I am looking for, but I do not go around taking pictures of people with food in their hands for example. There is a general concept but it is not a certain set of pictures. It is a broader way I work but it is a very slow way. So therefore I don't get as many pictures as some other people but I chose to do it that way because I think the ones I get are very strong whereas most other people don't have the strength I have. I won't settle for less because I am tired of the old fashioned documentary type of photographs. I mean if so and so did it, it is not good enough to be another copy of them, you have to go beyond it.
CR: How do people react to your work? Do some people react in a way that might suggest that your work shows people as being freaks?
BG: If they do they just don't look. There is beauty in everything. The people that I photograph I enjoy. I am stimulated by them. I like people that have something different and special and I think that's what makes life special. If everybody was the same or all the buildings looked alike, and the world is becoming more and more homogenised that way, I think it is going to be duller and duller and harder to find the type of people that are interesting. But I get off on that, I mean that I enjoy that, I get stimulated, I get energy, I get energised. But I think that what someone most people would call beautiful aren't really so beautiful to me, I enjoy the other people, they have a beauty for me, they have a style, they have something special. My father was a character so I guess that might be why I enjoy photographing people who are characters. I am trying to draw the spirit out of the people and I think my pictures are very spiritual - I don't mean in a religious sense, but they say something. I should make another point - the people in my photographs are only symbols - it is not that person actually. I think the most important thing someone can have in a photograph is mystery. If I can't allow the viewer to look at the photograph and make up a story about it then I think for me it is not a strong photograph. I don't like photographers who tell you everything in a photograph. They don't give any credit to the viewer.
CR: In other words, allow people space.
BG: Yes exactly.
CR: In some ways I have a sense that you are searching for something or someone.
BG: Yeah I am. I could even be searching for the perfect photograph.
CR: No, more than that.
BG: Maybe I am searching for my father. I never photographed my father. Maybe I am searching to find out who I am. I have just realised that I am fifty in October I discovered several years ago that many of the male characters in my New York City photographs have the appearance of my father. He had thick grey hair, smoked a big cigar, wore hats, he was a Jewish man who looked like a Mafia type, and I realised in my photographs how many men with hats, in suits and smoking cigars I have. Yes, my father was like a hero to me when I was a kid. He had a pretty sad end and at that point I didn't see him much because I realised that he would destroy me totally because he was pretty negative verbally to me. He always told me I wasn't good and in the last few years I've realised a lot and I forgave him a lot but he also took a lot from me and may that is why people don't realise that I am shy. I am shy unless I am comfortable and I don't like to be the one who is the life and soul of the party, but if I am comfortable I will say anything to anybody and it is the same with taking pictures, when I am in the flow I can get away with anything.