New York street photographer Bruce Gilden has made a fruitful career out of getting into people’s faces. His prickly demeanor and confrontational aesthetics have earned him a kind of cult following among gritty urban photographers and Vice Magazine devotees. A Brooklyn native, he’s spent the better part of his life stalking the city sidewalks, armed with a battered Leica and his trusty flashgun, ready to pounce on his unsuspecting prey.
At 75 years old, he remains astonishingly spry – often leaping directly into the path of his oncoming subject and getting the shot before they have a chance to protest. Given his penchant for photographing individuals who live and work on the street, it’s no surprise that his encounters sometimes erupt in heated exchanges and occasional violence.
Gilden’s latest book, Cherry Blossoms, published late last year by Thames & Hudson, is a collection of work produced during two residencies and several additional trips to Tokyo in the mid-to-late 1990s.
The photographs bear an obvious likeness to his New York street scenes, and it’s clear that he’s looking for a certain kind of grit and destitution in a new location. All of the same tropes are sought out and put on full display here, with a dash of interloping exoticism: the Yakuza underling lighting a cigarette for his boss, the aging sex worker wobbling on the sidewalk in platform shoes, an unconcious man bleeding from a headwound.
The book itself is titled after an image of a woman sitting under a tree in a sakura-patterned kimono, eating fried chicken with a can of beer at her side. These are not your average gaijin tourist snaps.
Knowing how Gilden works on his own turf, it’s reasonable to conclude that he approached most of his subjects in Japan with the same non-consensual force – by catching them unaware and leaving no time for them to sidestep his lens. On some level, this tactic is obviously yielding interesting results, and Gilden’s well-trained eye is undeniable. Every image is buzzing with the energy of the street, thanks in large part to his strong sense of perspective and framing. By physically throwing himself into the scene, he pulls the viewer onto the same visual plane as the action unfolds. We’re right on the street with the man who’s going down from a punch, or the stray dog weaving between the legs of a dense swarm of pedestrians. There is an atmosphere of chaos and potential danger in every frame: the raw emotional tension between Gilden and his subjects. While this often makes for a gripping photograph, it also begs us to consider the ethics of this particular brand of street photography and cross-cultural representation. The unintended subtext of Cherry Blossom seems to pose the question: is Bruce Gilden really the appropriate person to be spotlighting Tokyo’s most vulnerable (and in some cases, most powerful) citizens?
Consent in street photography and the right to ‘privacy’ in public spaces have been topics of hot debate in recent years, with many countries adopting laws to protect their citizens from being photographed without their permission. In fact, in 2019, Kyoto’s Gion neighborhood enacted a law banning tourists from photographing Geisha on the streets. While this makes good sense as a measure to protect the privacy of locals and the intrinsic value of cultural traditions, the same considerations are not usually afforded to the people Gilden is often drawn to photograph.
A look at Gilden’s overall body of work reveals a kind of dispassionate curiosity for people living in the margins of society. While he repeatedly claims to be an outsider himself, and that he finds his subjects uniquely beautiful, it’s difficult to imagine they are left feeling particularly uplifted by these encounters.. Many of the photographs in Cherry Blossom depict those who are unhoused, incapacitated or otherwise suffering, and by assaulting them under the harsh light of his flashgun, it’s clear that Gilden’s intention is to produce images that are both unflattering and unnerving. His failure to humanize his subjects seems to invite the viewer to gawk and impose their own biases, sacrificing the dignity of his subjects for the sake of shock value.
In a candid interview with WNYC, Gilden responds to a question about his approach by flatly stating “I have no ethics.” Indeed, he seems to be proud of the fact that he is working outside of parameters of social acceptability. In Cherry Blossom (as in his earlier work in Haiti focused on victims of a natural disaster), it appears that he’s attempting to remake his New York photographs– but from the uninformed vantage of a cultural outsider. His skewed depictions of Tokyo lack the sensitivity of other artists working in the same medium to explore similarly controversial themes. One might argue that the through-line between all of Gilden’s work is an unflinching look at the effects of late capitalism and inequality on the traditions and social fabric of various cultures, but the work itself does little to address the hardship it depicts, or even require the viewer to ponder their place in it. We’re left instead with a sense that we’ve been given a voyeuristic glimpse into the dark side of Tokyo at a safe and comfortable distance.