Bruce Gilden's Truth
The camera never lies? What a load of old cobblers. Susan Sontag put the kibosh on that fake news decades ago. There is however a certain searing truth to Bruce Gilden’s photographs. Whether that is the truth of the sitter or the truth of the clicker however … I guess that’s for you to decide.
Bruce’s last book was aptly titled Only God Can Judge Me. The phrase lifted from a scratchy tattoo on the chest of Jessica, one of the books subjects. One spread of the monograph places a trademark Gilden close-up portrait of Jessica next to a line of interview transcript. “I do tricks. It’s scary. You look at everybody as a predator. The most traumatic thing that ever happened to me was when I had people try to kidnap me and I had to jump out of the car on the highway and run for my life.”
How come this time in the book you chose to have quotes, rather than just letting the pictures speak?
“Because I think the quotes are very important. Look, when someone tells you something I’m smart enough to realise they could be lying, okay, or making it up. It could be a figment of their imagination, it could be the drugs talking, look it could be a politician talking, you know the old joke, how do you know when a politician is lying, do you know that one?”
Beauty Papers: When their lips are moving.
“Yeah, right. Okay so, the things that all these women told me… Every one of them has been abused in one way or another. Usually sexually and usually by someone who’s close to them whether it’s their father, their grandfather, their uncle, their mothers best friend, whoever. Many of them have had parents who were drug addicts. So for me, there’s a real closeness to these people, because I grew up in a house where my mother was a prostitute, in the house and my father was okay with it. I think that was his thing. So I had a similar background to these people. There are people who are close to me and hurt me and there are people that were close to them and hurt them. They spiralled out of control. I spiralled several times in my life but thank god I was able to bring it back home.”
Interviewing Bruce Gilden is not one of those leisurely fashion affairs with jasmine tea and Diptyque candles – even an ocean apart speaking over Skype I feel the full throttle of his relentless vigour. The light is dodgy in my room giving me a slightly silhouetted appearance “What are you in witness protection or something!?” Bruce barks in that brilliant Brooklyn accent. Next it’s “What’s that on top of your head!?” (it’s my hair.) You don’t really interview Bruce he’s way too clever to be directed, you get swept into his jostling traffic. He’s described the Only God Can Judge Me project as intensely personal and a form of catharsis.
Is that catharsis more in taking the picture or more when you look back and edit the work?
“I have a very tough skin, let’s start from that, okay? I look at these women, I interview them. It’s selfish because I’m doing the pictures I respond to visually, but there’s a very strong emotional connection here, because of my mother and how I suffered as a child. Since my father was a Mafioso type, we learned respect. So you never speak about anything to anybody, you just suffer. And when you’re a kid you don’t know that anybody is any different than you. But there were many things that I saw or heard… You know I heard things that nobody should hear, okay? And I wouldn’t even discuss some of them publicly unless you twisted my arm really hard and you threatened to kill me or something. And my mother committed suicide, and I didn’t do anything to help her, not that I could have, there was probably too much hurt inside me. That could have been my way of getting back at them, you know, for all that they made me go through. And for me when my mother died I cried a lot when my father died I didn’t. You know I could probably cry now because I felt I probably let her down, but I felt I didn’t love her.
So it’s a very complicated situation and I’m not looking for people to say ‘Oh god look at Bruce’, you know I dealt with it. So since I dealt with it I went on with my life, I made something of myself in spite of all of that. So when it comes to people who are victims I have the same attitude, in other words, I did it, why can’t you? It’s not an easy attitude but I’m not sitting there like an intellectual, look I almost died myself on drugs. I went into a real tailspin when my father died and then my mother committed suicide, that’s when I almost died myself on drugs. So obviously there was a large effect, but with these women I will tell them you know ‘Listen, I’m not a priest’, okay thank god but I will always tell them ‘I’m not a missionary, but I do think that you’re barking up the wrong tree and you should get yourself straightened out’. They say ‘Oh yeah, I will, I will’ and I say ‘Listen, when you’re ready to do it, you’ll do it, but don’t tell me you will.’ It’s tough to see them. I like to make people look at them because I don’t think how we address these issues is very correct. Most people don’t want to look at these people, it’s too tough, especially the ones that are far along in their drug abuse.”
Does it stop with the picture or do any of them keep in touch?
“Oh I don’t keep in touch really with anybody but every time I go back I see some of the same women. Unless a couple of them have died from overdoses. Look, I remember photographing one woman, Texas. The first picture I took of her was a face portrait and she’s got makeup on. The next day, I took a waist up picture of her where she’s basically pretty. A lot of these women were pretty at one time and some still are pretty, but she looks like a fashion model walking along very confidently, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, and a colourful makeup kit under her arm. The only way you can see that she’s not a model is if you look at her arms. I mean, marks all over. And then when I went back the next time she was dead. You know she told me that she’ll stop when she’s ready. She’s ready, she’s dead. There are other women that are just as bad that I’m not interested in photographing, the people I photograph are purely visual to me. So, I’m a photographer and being a photographer I take pictures. If I can help them I’m more than glad to help them. I hope that people will help them but it takes a strong constitution to help these people because if you have ever been in a family with a drug addict, it’s not very pleasant. I mean, what can I say?”
Did you ever show your work to your mum?
“When I started photographing my mum was still alive, but I don’t think she would’ve been able to comprehend it, because she was totally insane. I remember visiting her in hospitals. I won’t go into all the details, but you know it was pretty tough. And I have one picture of her, that I’ve never shown anyone except my wife. It’s in the hospital and it’s really something, okay? It’s no longer a human being.
The tough guy, in the tradition of Bruce’s father, is ever present in the work. Pristine suited Yakuza, vodka swilling Russian gangsters wrestling each other, even members of The Firm (The Kray’s gang) chosen for a high fashion editorial in place of models. It’s a machismo that the urbane tend to either fetishise or relegate to a time machine, but the men in Gilden’s photographs aren’t in butch drag. It’s not political or ironic or post anything. It’s life.
Is ‘tough guy’ for you, ever a compliment?
“Of course it is. I don’t think like everybody else. Lots of times I prefer to deal with a tough guy than a weak person. Unless the tough guy is a psycho. An average tough guy knows he’s tough and he doesn’t have to pick on anybody. Weak people pick on people who are weaker than them and I don’t like bullies. If you’re a tough guy and a bully that’s something else, but with tough guys, there is some sort of unwritten code. For example, I took a picture in London years ago on the GMT project and I took a flash picture of a guy walking across my frame who had a shaved head, I was 54 then, he must have been 35 or 40, a tough guy. A scar on his head from the front of his head to the rear. I took the flash picture, he came back and he said to me “If you do that again I’ll break you in half.” I was going to say something to him because I don’t let people talk to me that way but I figured I’m not going to gain anything, that’s a tough guy. In other words, he said what he had to say, he did it, boom, I’m like that in my character. In other words, I’ll tell you something and if you do it again, then we have a problem. But it’s used in a respectful way because I like people who are well read, streetwise intelligent and who can take care of themselves physically, that’s my ideal person.
Is that the type of women you’re drawn to as well?
[Bruce calls to his wife] “Sophie, are you the type of woman who can protect yourself physically? He said am I drawn to that type of woman?”
“What type of woman?” Sophie Darmaillacq replies.
“A woman who is intelligent but can also defend herself physically.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I have to work.”
"I’m an artist in my soul, I have to do what I do. I’m not doing it for the money, I'm not doing it for various sundry reasons that people say. Those pictures are me, they’re angry, they’re sad deep down sometimes, but that's life."
Does your work make you happy?
“Yeah, I think that’s a good question. Yeah, when I do good pictures. I’m an artist in my soul, I have to do what I do. I’m not doing it for the money, I’m not doing it for various sundry reasons that people say. Those pictures are me, they’re angry, they’re sad deep down sometimes, but that’s life. I stopped collecting photo books about 10 years ago. I have about 2000 photo books and I learned my craft by looking at photos books and looking at photographs, so I have a deep knowledge of photography, of what I like and what I don’t like and I’m very critical. I’m not negative I’m critical. But the thing is that I have to do photographs. You know in one sense, I’m challenging myself. In other words, you’re as good as what you just did, I don’t want to rest on my laurels. A lot of young people today don’t know the history and then you go and see that they’re doing what someone else did, 30 years ago but better. What I like is my opinion but I think my opinion is quite spot-on, because I also know what’s easy to do and what’s hard to do. Street photography is probably the hardest photography to do. Especially in crowded areas people are moving very fast. I was a good athlete, you have to be a good athlete, you have to think fast, you have to have an idea of what you’re going to do, you have to have an idea of how you’re going to do this thing. A photograph either makes it or it doesn’t make it. I mean sometimes it’s mediocre but when a photograph is really good, it jumps off the page. So for me, there’s a lot of thought process that goes in before I go out to work. I mean it’s not just a loose cannon there, okay?”
Bruce Gilden certainly does not sit on the fence. His work commands your focus and demands a reaction. The project that has catalyzed the most controversy is his ongoing up-close, claustrophobically cropped full colour Faces. Described by critics as “mesmerising” and “relentlessly cruel” (in the same headline) these portraits get under the skin.
Was the beginning of your Faces project spontaneous?
“No, the start of it was not spontaneous at all. The beginning of that series started 20, 30 years ago, with mug shots. I love mugshots. I’m very slow at reacting to do something that I want to do. If you look at my England book that I did for the Archive of Modern Conflict I started to do black and white face portraits, , but they weren’t as tight, because of the lens I was using. So, this was germinating for 20 or 30 years and once I saw the picture I took, I said that’s it. And then I pursued it. It always amazes me that you have these anonymous photographers who did mugshots, who did some of the best photographs in the history of photography. The reason for the flash is because I don’t want to have any shadows in the picture, I want one side to be equal to the other side because that’s where the perfectionist in me comes in. With everything I do there is a vision to it.
Talk to me a little bit about your take on the word ‘beauty’?
“Beauty, I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I find what I photograph beautiful. Some other people may not. My pictures aren’t pretty, they are beautiful. I don’t like pretty pictures. So I think that’s the great thing about photography, that someone could choose a subject that I would have no interest in at all, and I can look at a picture and think wow that’s really good no way I would have taken that person or that subject. It’s got to be in your soul, I mean have you ever looked at a picture and there’s been no soul in it?
Well, I work in fashion so that’s a lot of the time.
“Well, I know but I’m not going to comment on that because I’ve done a lot of fashion work. But I try to put realism into my fashion, I put in who I am, what I am.”
I talked to Rose Hartman, she’s a New York photographer you took a picture of for Beauty Papers, she was one of the faces. She didn’t like the picture, does that bother you?
“No, you know why? Just look at her, she looks like that. You’ve seen her right? I didn’t do anything to that picture.”
No, but you don’t do anything to any of them, right?
“Right, that’s my point. This is my last comment, there’s one person in fashion that’s very big, I won’t mention who, it doesn’t matter. But the thing is, she got a little upset once at a candid picture I took of her and in reality if you look at that picture in black and white and you look at other pictures of the same woman in colour, she looks much better in my picture than she does in the other ones – the ones that she gave the ‘okay’ to because they were portraits for magazines. I wasn’t close I was six, seven feet away. So I’m not responsible for other people’s opinions, I don’t comment on what people say about me, I never answer to anybody no matter how negative they have been.
I’m taking that picture for me because it’s what I see, I find it visual, I find it interesting. I could tell you that if you work with beautiful people, like for example a gorgeous actress or a gorgeous model, they might be more discerning of that one pimple. I once had a job for a German magazine shooting a movie director. I had like three minutes with this person. He was a well known movie director, nice enough looking guy, nothing, you know out of the ordinary. And when you do a job like that and you have three minutes you have to cover your ass. So I covered my ass and I did a very basic picture of him waist-up with flash, the kind of picture that would offend no one. You’ll find it as a stock photo in a young kids textbook, a nothing picture. And the magazine called me and said: ‘We can’t use the picture.’ I said ‘What the fuck you talking about?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, he finds his nose too big.’ So I mean who can comment? Someone personally can comment yes, they don’t like it, but sometimes people should look in the mirror.”