New York City 1978-1984instagram/bruce_gilden

Earlier this year, the covid-19 pandemic brought with it a new dictionary of alien terminology. Our familiar list of everyday words was torn to pieces, and once unknown phrases barged their way into common parlance. ‘Social distancing’, for example, is not something that had ever existed in Bruce Gilden’s vocabulary. Born in 1946, Gilden grew up in Brooklyn, New York. It was there in the Big Apple that he began to make a name for himself as a photographer, and in 1998, he was granted the rare honour of membership to Magnum Photos. Over the course of a career that has spanned roughly forty years, Gilden has cemented himself as one of photography’s most recognisable yet polarising figures. On the streets of New York City, he has forged a truly unique style: armed with his camera and infamous flash gun, Gilden gets right up in the faces of unsuspecting passers-by, whose expressions of surprise are given a singular and sometimes almost supernatural appearance by the bright flash that illuminates them. 

The quite literally in-your-face style that has made Gilden so notorious does not sit well with many prominent photographers. Perhaps most outspoken of all is the great Joel Meyerowitz, who openly states that he despises Gilden’s work. In Meyerowitz’s eyes, these are the photos of an “aggressive bully”. At the best of times, it is an approach to street photography that very much pushes, or indeed goes well beyond, the boundaries of ethical practice.

To get in people’s faces with a camera is now not just unethical, but also deeply irresponsible.

These, however, are not the best of times. When Gilden observed that Manhattan has “changed a lot” since he started photographing it in 1981, he could never have imagined the ways in which his hometown has been so utterly transformed this past year. Over the last eight months, New York City has been devastated by Covid-19, and the over 24,000 deaths caused by the pandemic have left its residents shaken. With obvious concerns about disease transmission, Gilden’s technique now seems less appropriate than ever before. To get in people’s faces with a camera is now not just unethical, but also deeply irresponsible. 

In an interview with WNYC, Gilden states his belief that “if you’re going to be a street photographer of any value […] I don’t think you can let [whether or not people will be upset] enter into your mind”. Yet in today’s world, this is precisely what you have to do. Respecting people’s personal space has never been more crucial, and to make others uncomfortable with a camera and flash gun seems especially wrong.

"Against The Wind", Detroit, USA 2016instagram/bruce_gilden

This is not to completely dismiss Gilden’s oeuvre; many of his photos, it must be admitted, are remarkably striking. There is certainly merit in his explanation that flash enables him to “visualise [his] feelings of the city, the energy, the stress, the anxiety”. These are emotions that have only become more prominent, and it would be fascinating to see a Gilden take on life in the time of coronavirus. However, not only is such a method unethical, but it would also be rather more challenging in 2020. Many are understandably more on-edge, more defensive and more reserved than they once were. If, for us less bold than the no-nonsense Gilden, street photography was already a daunting task, then approaching people to take their picture has become a distinctly difficult mission in the era of ‘social distancing’. There has been a palpable shift in how people behave and interact around others, and the risk of confrontation with potential subjects seems to have increased. How, I wonder, might we attempt to capture the spirit of current society in a more manageable – and more moral – way?

There is a level of validity to Gilden’s assertion that proximity “is so important in telling the truth”, but it would also be wrong to suggest that closeness is the only way of achieving this.

There is a level of validity to Gilden’s assertion that proximity “is so important in telling the truth”, but it would also be wrong to suggest that closeness is the only way of achieving this. I wholeheartedly disagree with Robert Capa’s claim that “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”; to suggest that good pictures are simply close ones is quite clearly to misunderstand what photography is about. Many styles that differ vastly from close-up street photography are just as effective, and in the era of Covid-19, the work of Fan Ho comes to mind. The Hong Kong photographer perfected the art of playing with silhouettes, shadows and distance quite remarkably, and many of his photos give a sense of detachment and loneliness that would certainly speak to today’s climate. His method is worlds apart from Gilden’s, and in my eyes, it is a far more touching and thought-provoking depiction of the human condition than the Brooklyn photographer’s.


Mountain View

The art that isn’t there

Street photography is a loosely defined concept, and it does not have to resemble Gilden’s style in order to be valid. Nor should it. Even though creating impactful images is something to strive for, doing so in a respectful way, I would argue, is more important. And while Covid-19 presents many photographic challenges, creative solutions will always prevail.

Zac Gladman is a fourth year MML student at St John’s. His photography account on instagram can be found under @zacgladmanphotos.