A Defense of Bruce Gilden’s Faces

(Left: Betty, Right: Terry) © Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos

(Left: Betty, Right: Terry) © Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos

All images are copyrighted and used with permission by Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos.

There has been a great deal of ballyhoo around Bruce Gilden’s latest work, from his two-day stint in Appalachia for VICE to his upcoming book Face. The latter of the two comprises 50 portraits Gilden took over the past several years, and one of the most interesting things about this is that he got permission from every single person. Most of Gilden’s oeuvre consists of images made very close with a flash in hand, which you can see a demonstration of in several videos. Gilden’s work often yields polarized reactions with no real middle ground, and while Face stands apart from most of his work, it’s caused the same spate love-it-or-hate-it reactions.

GB. Romford, Essex. Sherry. 2013. © Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos

GB. Romford, Essex. Sherry. 2013. © Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos

There was an article on The Guardian recently about Gilden’s latest book titled “A latter-day freak show? Bruce Gilden’s extreme portraits are relentlessly cruel.” At the outset, we’re given a framework through which we are to understand the photographs: stark color portraits in which each face takes up the entirety of the frame. It nearly goes without saying that Gilden made these images with a flash. Given the lack of motion and the rapport he developed with his subjects, Gilden’s flash is revelatory. Yet, the author remains convinced, writing, “First and foremost, I feel uncomfortable as a viewer – not because of the poverty or abuse etched on to the landscapes of these faces, but because their perceived ugliness is paraded as a kind of latter-day freak show.” The fact that he’s uncomfortable seems to eclipse any merit these photos might have, and by regarding it as a latter-day freak show, he’s further disenfranchising an already disenfranchised community.

These faces, however, are necessary. Their contours, creases and crevices may not be what your average person might consider attractive, but they exist. Regardless of how uncomfortable they might make us, the disenfranchised have just as much a right to be photographed and seen as anybody else, and that’s what makes this work compelling. Gilden chose to photograph the faces we’d be inclined to look away from. I’d be interested to hear how exactly Gilden worked with each person. What questions did he ask? How long did he spend with them? He’s known to have a particularly brusque personality that is often as divisive as the photographs he makes, and it’s something to wonder about that he actually secured the consent of the people he photographed.

USA. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 2013. Frieda outside the state fair. © Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos

USA. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 2013. Frieda outside the state fair. © Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos

There’s a stigma in many photography circles about photographing the disenfranchised and the homeless. The ethics of it are murky. Some do it well. Many don’t. Oftentimes, it’s seen as exploitative, but it can be argued that photography, despite the photographer’s earnest intentions, is by its very nature exploitative. The implicit understanding in agreeing to have your portrait taken is that you want to be seen, though many portraits tend to present an idealized version of the subject. Gilden doesn’t seem to be interested in idealized versions, and he’s certainly not interested in presenting a comfortable view of reality.

I’ve often vacillated when it comes to Gilden’s work. There was some pointed criticism about Gilden’s two-day stint in Appalachia (aptly titled “Two Days in Appalachia” for Vice’s photo issue) by the photographer Roger May in which he says that Gilden’s harsh approach and unfavorable thoughts about Appalachian residents, as documented by the other photographer Vice sent there, led to images that are largely a disservice to the community. It would appear that he took his street approach into the community, and it ultimately didn’t work. I find that I’m far less taken with “Two Days in Appalachia” than I am with Face because there’s something about the latter that I just can’t look away from.

The people he spoke with and photographed have faces that are full of intrigue because they’re far removed from what we usually see on billboards and elsewhere. We cohabit with these folks. We breathe the same air. Yet, when we pass them on the street, we’re more than likely to look away. Thanks to Gilden, we can’t anymore. We have to look.