A Fare for Bruce’s Fair

What would you pay? How far into your pockets would you be willing to reach? What fare would make it worth it? How much? To see Bruce Gilden in action at one of these fairs. To see him approach the subjects and make these almost-grotesque portraits.

To shoot the flash straight into their eyes. To search for their soul. To capture himself. How much? How much would a fair Fare for Bruce’s Fair be?

Between the years 2012 and 2014 Bruce Gilden created some stunning portraits of characters he met in the USA, Britain and Colombia. I was caught by the US ones in this article, and in discovering though photography learned much more not only on Bruce Gilden’s project, but his character, history, and love for photography. Yes, because he describes photography as ‘love’, as opposed to a ‘passion’; the latter comes and goes. The former is there to stay. Like his love for his wife and daughter.

And for my purposes, to balance, or maybe to create a contrast in my emotions as I venture into this post, I put on some Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. paaaa, paaaa….ti ti ti tu ta. Sounds like a newborn’s sounds instead of Davis’ soft trumpet. You get the point. Wine, not coffee this time.

And then BAM!

USA. NYC. 2017. Wisconsin State Fair.
Gabby, Wisconsin State Fair, 2017.

A tight portrait of Gabby, an individual Bruce must have met and exchanged a few words before asking her to take a portrait.

Not as elegant like Miles Davis.

But Bruce is not in it for elegance. Brash, ‘in your face’, literally, and tough. Bruce Gilden is known for is street photography, with an off-camera flash, capturing some jaw-dropping moments. And through his technique he almost distorts reality, like in the image below.

USA. New York City. 1990

He isn’t a Magnum photographer just because they liked his thick New York accent. And has been with the agency since 1998.

Like he says, “I’m known for taking pictures very close, and the older I get, the closer I get”.

All the while, as he puts it, photographing himself. As in the example below.

USA. NYC. 2017. Wisconsin State Fair.
Nathan, Wisconsin State Fair, 2017.

He recalls in this article how “The kid was crying when his cow had to be taken out of the contest,” he recalls. “So I went to the mother and we had a nice conversation and she said it was okay if I take a picture of her son. “That event, that moment, should be a catalyst to a springboard that makes you stronger,” he says. “I had a very tough childhood emotionally, and I knew things that children shouldn’t know, and I kept it inside of me my entire life,” he adds.

He connects. That is the first lesson I discovered. He looks at the subject and sees himself, his past. He likes the characters, but there is self-identity in his work.

And I appreciate that. I recall also Patrick Zachmann picking up a camera in search of his identity. Don’t you do the same? Could he summarize it any better in the video below?

“I mean we only have an x amount of wonderful photographs in our whole work, no matter who we are. Why does one photograph sing and another doesn’t? I think there’s a deeper vision than I’m interested in. I’m photographing myself in my pictures. That’s me. Some people don’t put theirselves in the pictures. I put myself in the pictures. Because if I don’t go with who I am I don’t go. Thank God for Photography. I mean, it probably saved my life”.

And then BAM!

USA. NYC. 2017. Wisconsin State Fair.
Keith, Wisconsin State Fair. 2017

Isn’t Keith from the US? From the Midwest? From Wisconsin? This isn’t a Facebook profile picture. This isn’t Instagram. This isn’t the accentuated glamour life that our social media alter-egos have on their pages. They are very middle america says Gilden in this article.

I look at these portraits, and the many more that he made, with such attention. The quality in the photo leaves no room for imagination. The stubble on Keith’s jaw. The pimples on Gabby’s face. The bad teeth. The menacing look. The tight crop. The life these characters have.

Trust me when I say that it was hard to get off these portraits. Each one told a very unique story and I invite you to look at more of them at his website.

Using the flash is another thing I learned. We all know Gilden uses a flash, but how these photographs ‘pop’, or ‘sing’ as he says in the interview above, is just mind-blowing. It makes all the details that much more vivid. That much more apparent. You can tell so much by the shadows.

Like for example in Keith’s jaw. By looking at the shadows you can see that it is positioned right in front of the subject, because the nose doesn’t cast a shadow on either side, and because the cheeks are both equally illuminated. But the jaw. It must be protruding because of the deep shadow under his chin.

And then again, BAM!

USA. NYC. 2017. Wisconsin State Fair.
Jean, Wisconsin State Fair, 2017

Now let me ask, is she thinking, “who the f*** are you, and why the f*** do you want to take a picture of me”. But really. How much closer can you get? Those eyes are just so penetrating.

I feel like she’s looking at me much more than I’m looking at her.

They are not like these other Bruce Gilden photographs, which remind us of a film-noir from the 40s.

USA. New York City. Woman walking on Fifth Avenue. 1992.

Is it the catch-light from the flash in the eyes that makes the difference? Is that what makes it “sing”? We all agree that that clearly isn’t the reason.

Or should we ask Betty.

Betty, location unknown

While I think this was taken in England, I am unsure of it. But I don’t think it was taken at a state fair. I hope.

I don’t even think I can look at this photo for longer than 30 seconds consecutively it is so powerful.

It is Bruce’s power. Like Chris Klatell writes in the book, Face“Here are Bruce Gilden’s people, his family. He shares their teeth, their stubble, their scrapes and blemishes, their fear of death. In the women’s scowls, in their sternly ambiguous glances, he sees his own mother’s face, before she killed herself…

BAM! Another one.

GB. West Bromwich. 2014. Peter at the bus station.
GB. West Bromwich. 2014. Peter at the bus station.

Peter. Who is Peter? Thankfully for me, not sure about you, but he isn’t looking directly at the camera.

I am left half way in between awe and confusion with these photos and Miles Davis. Maybe it’s the wine.

I have though discovered a few things, aside from Bruce Gilden’s ongoing project.  Getting close. Having tight crops. Using a flash. Asking permission, (which I wrote about in the post Street Style). That these photographs, much like Richard Avedon’s portraits (in this post) have the ability to take portrait photography and show society like it hasn’t been told before.

And most importantly, photographing oneself.

As Bruce puts it in an interview here, “A good photograph for me works well across the frame and also has a strong emotional content.”

What Fare would you pay to see Bruce in action at one of these fairs? Priceless.

Until Next Time,

Six Hours in Paris