Leica Camera is once again an official partner of Photo London 2018, which runs from 17th – 20th May. This year Leica is presenting an exclusive exhibition of Bruce Gilden’s “Farm Boys & Farm Girls” in the Leica Collector’s Lounge in Somerset House.
The Magnum photographer and street photography legend, Bruce Gilden, was born in Brooklyn in 1946. Having achieved a defining influence on street photography over the past six decades, Gilden, a self-proclaimed “city boy”, traveled to numerous State Fairs throughout the American Mid-West to capture a series of portraits in his own inimitable way. Despite maintaining his iconic style of close-up, flash photography, this series represents a departure of sorts, seeing Gilden turn his focus to children for the first time. They are members of the next generation within America’s agricultural community, who exhibit and sell their prized animals at these bustling events. As such, the series sees Gilden immerse himself in a fascinating world hitherto unknown to him and far removed from the confines of his comfort zone. Now 71 years old, we spoke with the ever-irreverent, enfant terrible of street photography about shooting with the Leica S, what he looks for in his subjects and what he learnt from the kids he photographed.
What was it that made you buy your first camera in 1967?
I was in school and there was nothing that I wanted to do. I went to acting school and one night in the class a guy got up and started to do Shakespeare in a big baritone voice and I just thought, with my Brooklyn accent I’ll never be able to do that. Photography was very popular back then. You had the movie Blow-Up about a photographer that photographs a killing and it was set in trendy London. Photography was en vogue, it was in the air, so I said, let me go get a camera and let me try that. I started a developing and printing course and I wasn’t a very good developer or printer but it was all the basics of photography. When I first saw that image come up, I said, “Holy crow! I did that” and then I was hooked.
Your style has been described by others as unforgiving, intrusive and even grotesque. How do you respond to that? And how would you describe your style of photography?
My style is a result of who I am. I was a very good athlete and very coordinated, so I matched my style with my athletic ability. Before I had any conception of what I wanted to do or how to make a good photograph, Robert Capa’s comment “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” really stuck with me. I also saw that as I get closer the pictures get stronger and I’m about strength in my pictures. I wanted the power of the images to come from me and the subject I was photographing. I feel that if I’m coming in and trying to capture your soul, if I’m close, you’ll feel the power of that, the energy.
But it’s not just about how close you are but it’s about how you act in the street. I know people who’ve been punched in the face for taking photos and they shoot ten feet away without a flash in the same areas I’ve worked my whole life. All these critics that want to be the judge and the jury of things they don’t understand, like how you act in the street, they have no conception of it. It’s like me talking about brain surgery. I’m an honest, blunt person. It’s who I am.
A lot of your photography focuses on the poor, the ill, the ugly or the disenfranchised. What is it that draws you to these people?
That’s who I am. I like characters. My father was a character. I’m a character. I photograph who I am and what interests me. I have a good rapport with the people on the street and what a lot of people don’t realize is that nobody normally pays attention to the people I photograph, but I do. I’m interested in the disenfranchised, the people no one pays attention to and when the picture is good, that’s a collaboration between me and them. As Robert Frank says, “The artist sees what’s invisible to others”. These people, there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re human but if I don’t show people this, they are not going to look at it because they don’t want to. They think that by not looking at it, that makes something go away, but things don’t go away. The way the world is going these people are getting left further and further behind and becoming even more disenfranchised. It’s in my guts. It’s a passion and I’m a lifer. I’ll do photography until I die.
The portraits of the “Farm Boys & Farm Girls” from the State Fairs series represents a new direction in a couple of ways. Having grown up in the city it must have been a foreign kind of feeling to find yourself in the heart of Middle America. What was it that drew you to these State Fairs in the first place?
I had a Guggenheim fellowship in 2013 and my assistant and I decided to use the money to photograph at State Fairs. The more people there are in a place, the more people you can find to photograph. In 2014 I went to 5 or 6 State Fairs and I tried to pick the ones that have the most people. In 2017 I went to the ones I liked, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Since then I’ve also been to the “Future Farmers of America”, which has 64,000 kids. It’s a convention and amazing to see all these kids in one place all wearing blue jackets. They educate the kids about how to become successful members of the agricultural community. Their motto is “I can, we will”. Put simply, I go to where there are the most people and all kinds of people.
When you live in New York you’re not really part of the rest of America and I’m interested in my country. It’s part of America that I don’t know well so I learned about the people and I saw where they live and I talked to them. What I learned from being around the kids is that all of them work. From the time they get up they look after their animals, they go to school, they play sports, their day is filled with things to do, so they can’t get in trouble and they can’t get bored. They have a lot going on and they are so polite. It’s nice being around them. I also learned from them how nice it is to grow up on a farm with animals because you learn about life and death. It prepares you for your own death. I’m afraid to die but I would say that when you have to kill your pig that you have cared for and lived with for 2 years, you learn about loving something and losing it. There are great life lessons there. I also learned a lot from observing. I know what Des Moines, Iowa looks like now, I know what Milwaukee, Wisconsin looks like now and the other places as well, I’ve learnt what these places are like and I’ve seen the differences in the people who live there.
This series is also the first time you’re subjects are children. How was this different from shooting adults on the street?
I never photographed children before in my life. I felt that children should be children. My youth was taken from me because I had a very emotionally hard childhood. My parents didn’t realize it but I knew and heard and saw things that no kid should see with their parents. That’s not hyperbole. That’s reality. Maybe that’s why I never really photographed kids.
These kids are so different from me in their upbringing and it was interesting for me to photograph them. I like them. I don’t photograph people I don’t have a rapport with. For example, Nathen was crying, his cow was being disqualified from the state championship. I think he’s 12 years old or something and he was crying forcefully. I asked his mother if she minds if I photograph him and she said, no. Obviously I needed him to keep crying but I couldn’t tell him that. I told him, listen, it may be very hard for you now to see this but in actuality this is a great lesson for you in life. I know how it feels to work for years and then something falls apart that’s out of your control, so I told him I empathize with him but at the end of the day I’m a photographer. I said to him that event should be a catalyst or a springboard that makes you stronger. I gave him a little life lesson. He probably didn’t hear it but I empathized with him. I know what it’s like to plan for something and then not get it.
How did you go about choosing, who to photograph? Were there certain characteristics you were looking for?
Someone wrote me and said you must take these photos in 5 minutes but I’m walking for miles and miles and there’s a lot of concentration goes into it. In Minnesota they had 270,000 people and I took 3 pictures. Having said that, I’m an intuitive person and an intuitive photographer. There was Jenna, a 10-year-old or something like that, and I watched her with her cow. I saw how intense she was and I just said “WOW!”. I need intensity in the eyes. I can’t shoot someone who is vacuous. Then the picture doesn’t say anything.
Unlike a lot of your street portraits, you’re not jumping these kids with the flash. These are posed portraits, so you must have had a conversation with them. What did you say to them?
Of course, I told them where to stand and to look in the lens. Sometimes I tried to get a little intensity if they didn’t have enough. I would ask them to think of something that made them upset or sad or, you just came in second, aren’t you competitive?
What people often don’t realize is that not only am I talented photographically but I’m also talented in dealing with people and that’s something that a lot of people don’t have. I’m good at that. I’m a street-wise person in that respect. I have more trouble with bankers because I have no interest in them. I couldn’t care less about them. Each kid is just as different as each person out there and every person looks distinct in my portraits because I get the soul. It’s like anything, some people have soul in their art and some people don’t. My pictures are about getting the soul out of somebody. I want the viewer to feel the person.
When did you start shooting with the Leica S? Was this the switch from black and white to color?
I was doing a series called “Postcards From America”, we were in Miami and I tried a Leica S. The quality was just unbelievable. With the M-System I shoot in black and white, with the Leica S I shoot in color. The S is my camera for the portraits. Without a digital camera I wouldn’t be able to do this series. I’m seeing what I’m getting. I’m an advocate of film but if I was using film I wouldn’t be able to see my crops. I work with an assistant who holds the flash. I’m still pretty mobile at 71 but the thing is, you have to make changes the older you get.
The faces from the State Fairs are going to be exhibited at Photo London 2018. Are you going to be speaking?
I’m going to be there doing a few interviews and signing some books and I have a lecture on the Friday night at 7pm. I’m going to be showing a little under 300 slides and talking about my career. I do it my way but it’s not because I want to hound people. I just want to show my whole career, from how I went from A to wherever I am now.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to get into street photography?
Be yourself. There are so many street photographers out there today who are imitating a certain style and I don’t find that interesting. It’s not just about being close. You can be 100 feet away and still do good street photography. It’s more important to be yourself and if you’re influenced by someone, try and build on that. I can’t be the next Cartier-Bresson but I can be the best Gilden.
For more information about the collaboration between Leica Camera and Bruce Gilden at Photo London 2018, please follow this link.