At 68, Bruce Gilden no longer patrols Coney Island in his army jacket, sleeves rolled up and poised to shoot beach-goers in his trademark candid style.
But 48 years after his career began, the acclaimed street photographer has lost none of his vigor or knack for bonding with his subjects.
“I make my judgments pretty quickly and I can read people very well,” says Gilden. “That’s why, regardless of what anybody says, I’ve had very few incidents in the streets: Because I have a very good bedside manner, I’m very comfortable.”
The Brooklyn-born photographer credits his upbringing with his identification with “the underdogs in life,” an understanding he describes as his strength. This manifests in intimate black-and-white shots taken everywhere from New York to Tokyo to Haiti.
“I see in black and white,” says the photographer. “I see the abstract; I don’t see the reality.”
As for the proximity of his subjects, Gilden paraphrases an aphorism from the late Hungarian photographer Robert Capa: “If it’s not good enough, you’re not close enough.”
The element of surprise
“You always have to be sneaky,” Gilden says. “There’s an element of surprise. You can’t let the people know you want to take their picture because then everything will change.”
Plus, he says, someone taking a photograph from four feet away looks far less suspect that someone ten times that distance.
He might shoot as few as three to 10 images a day, but after this long he knows what he likes. However, that hasn’t stopped him from experimenting, branching out into color for “Face,” a project 20 years in the making.
“A lot of the project is about people being left behind,” he explains. “I find that a lot of people not only are left behind, but they’re invisible. People don’t want to look at them.”
Gilden has dragged his subjects into the spotlight and celebrates beauty in all its forms. He’s also inspired some unlikely supporters.
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“I had a letter, an email, that somebody sent me from a Catholic woman who does something online,” he recalls. “She said ‘Wow, I looked at these pictures, and they were tough. And they’re a little difficult for me. But then I said ‘What would Jesus think about this?’ And she came to the conclusion that these are the people that Jesus would be interested in. And she wound up being positive about the pictures. What can I say? You’ll find strange bedfellows.”
He’s nearly 50 years deep into photography, but don’t ask Gilden to retire.
“What else would I do?” he says. “I annoy my wife enough as it is!”