Sunday, 14 October 2007

Shoot like... Bruce Gilden

You walk minding your own business in some street. At day, at night, doesn't matter. Maybe in Tokyo, maybe in New York. If you're unlucky, even in Puerto Principe. Suddenly, a big figure, with head covered with a dark hat, lots of clothing creates a bearlike embrace. A tremendous flash of light follows. You're blinded. He dissapeared. Was this an alien abduction? A kidnap attempt? Well, most probably, it was Bruce Gilden.

If there's somebody that shoots physically close, that's Gilden. And he's not subtle, no way. He shoots with flash even in daylight. He's probably not the invisible photographer, but the stunning factor is on his side. His images of New York make it look like a frenetic and mad city, even if he focuses on the individuals that populate it. Japan is nasty, dark, full of tough yakuza guys with tattoos and cigarettes. His fashion magazine is an ode to mafia capos and beautiful femme fatales. He's cool and blunt. His aesthetics follow that bluntness.

You need

A small 35mm camera and a flashgun. It doesn't matter if the x-sync of your flash is not the fastest ever (no leaf shutter needed!) as a bit of that blurriness of slow shutter speeds add to the feel.

A wide angle lens. Accounts vary, but Gilden seems to shoot with a 28mm or a 24mm lens. Probably with both.

Lots of practice shooting with the camera in one hand and the flash in the other. Come on, it's not easy to focus when you do this! Also, take in account that the power of the flash or the aperture have to be set in accordance to the distance to the subject (to not underexpose or overexpose). Try to do this with one hand. Hard, innit? Well, after all you'll end up pre-exposing almost every shot. So you need to know what to shoot.

Bodyguards. I mean, you can't do this and stay alive for very long. You can call them assistants. It sounds cool, and makes you sound more like a photographer than a local godfather. (There's a cached blog entry about this.)

Lots of balls. In the female version you can find your local equivalent. You shoot close and people see you. You shoot closer if you just can't be close.

A strange eye for composition. You focus in parts of people. An expression, a few hands. The woman with the nice hat and the man with the watch look promising... get close, closer, you have nothing else in the frame, you shoot. That's it. Get rid of the backgrounds and streets, who wants them.

Good dresscode. First of all, silent shoes or trainers. Don't try slippers, they don't give that slightly rough image you have to keep for keeping your subjects away from you after shooting. Dodgy hats and gloves help. A beard. Make it look as if you just stole that Leica in your last 'job'.


Some stunning images. So close, so big. Wow factor guaranteed.

Fashion editors think that you're so odd that they want you to shoot some beautiful models with nice handbags. Gosh.

You find subject matter everywhere. After all, you only need people. The more variety and the weirder exemplars found, the better.


You have to compete with Bruce Gilden.

Risk factor: you can end up badly beaten by your local version of mafia or criminals. Even football hooligans are nasty, man! Remember, even if you are invisible, your flash is not.

You depend a lot on good and tight editing. After all, most of the shots are done in a similar fashion and the ones that work really work. Lots of chances to get beaten up before you finish a book.

Short life expectancy. Do I have to repeat this? (Wait till we review Robert Cappa, a war photographer whose motto is "If your photos are not good enough, you're not close enough.)

You can run out of batteries for your flash. Seriously, you need to carry plenty of crap unless you shoot with an XA2 with an A9 flash.

Your pictures are not that popular with all audiences.


If you have a taste for action, give it a go. After all shooting like Bruce Gilden teaches you lots of technique. And balls. You can also meet some interesting people. Anyhow, if you apreciate having legs, you might still want to stick to shooting like Henri Cartier-Bresson. If you have a thing for shooting people with flash and don't like the risk involved in shooting like Bruce Gilden, you might want to consider shooting like Diane Arbus. Soon we will have her 'shoot like' in this blog.


stpiduko said...

Think it's time I started using a flash

think I'd never be able to get images like this though

stpiduko said...

The man smoking the cigarette is a famous Japanese writer.

Anonymous said...

Check out Gideon Gold's film, 'Misery Loves Company: The Life & Death of Bruce Gilden' and see both an awesome film showing Gilden at work in New York and Mexico City.
The film rather beautifully reveals why Gilden photographs in the way that he does and the characters that he does. I saw it in New York at the Lincoln Center last year and and it touched me to the core. It has a rather interesting take on Gilden revealing all that is not so great in New York. The film maker works with a language that is fresh and totally suprising. A real treat for those who can track this rare beauty down.

Anonymous said...

You don't really need the cable unless you are shooting portrait style. Even the on-camera flash will do.

A lot of his images are candids of course, but a lot on the magnum site, including the picture mentioned of a Japanese writer are actually from assignments. He has even shot fashion. Why am I writing this? I have no idea. He's one of my favourites, but the last thing cities need is a bunch of Bruce Gilden wannabes running around with in-your-face flashes going off. Wait a sec, no, the world DOES need more of them. That way when some big jock beats the tar out of them they may choose or be forced to give up photography all together! Yee haw!

Matt Nassau said...

Gilden's work is tremendous for its vitality and energy in the images. The mixed flash/ambient lighting, slow shutter, the hit and run methodology, the unexpected (observed and forgotten) expressions of subjects (either candid or due to the approach of the photographer) makes for an unusual flavour of photo. Some people will dislike the uncouth and 'violating' way he 'takes' a shot of people in public - how dare he! Others dismiss the results as bland and junk shots of ordinary things.
Fair enough - they can leave it. I'll take their share and mine!
I'm trying this stuff myself and learning a lot of the UK (London) mentality to this 'invasive' means to getting a new styled shot. I'm learning about the laws too!

Torsten said...

Does anyone know how/where to get a copy of the movie "Misery loves company - the life and death of bruce gilden"? I would love to see it but cant find a theater showing it, a dvd to buy or a download somewhere. Cheers, Torsten

Jonah L said...

One thing that's worth noting is that Gilden probably uses a pre focusing method. In order to get his flash burst at the right exposure he needs to make a decision ahead of time about the subject to flash distance. With a wide angle lens such as a 28mm lens, the hyperfocal distance of the lens would probably be around 3-4 feet which means that anything from 1-2feet all the way to infinity will be in "acceptable" focus. So there you have it... If you want to shoot like Mr Gilden:

1) Learn about hyperfocal distance

2)Learn how to meter a flash burst using a light meter.

3) Learn how to balance flash and ambient light to your liking.

4)Being built like a brick or extremely loudmouthed and daring is more important than any technique. If you don't see yourself walking up to somebody and firing a strobe 3-4 feet from their everybody else a favor and don't photograph people walking away from you or across the stree with a telephoto.