Photography studio, gallery and training complex

Gilden Days

What a week I’ve had! As mentioned in my last post, I’ve spent much of this week assisting wild-eyed, no-nonsense Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden on his workshop at Light House in Wolverhampton. And it’s been an amazing experience.

Bruce Gilden

The course’s participants were a truly international bunch and with very varied levels of ability, but all – I believe – benefitted greatly from the erm.. frank(?) …and forthright(?) guidance of Mr. Gilden. Each day, they were given an assignment and their efforts assessed the next morning.

Gilden is just about as close to the archetypal fearless New York Russian/Jewish street-fighting camera-in-face photographer (if there is such an archetype) as it’s possible to be. Hilariously funny but with a very sharp edge, he has charm by the bucketload and great anecdotes by the skipload. He is full of praise for his friends (Martin Parr, for instance) but is simultaneously scathing and/or dismissive of other “renowned” photographers, including some of his Magnum stable-mates.

He may be in his mid-sixties now but is as sharp as a tack, remembering everything said to him, every image shown to him, and by whom. Surprisingly, he has an amazing knowledge of british football teams. He’s also perfectly happy to stand up to any belligerent victims of his intrusive Leica, his swollen knuckles bearing testament to a lifetime of self-defence in the pursuit of his art among some of the world’s toughest characters. But equally, he’s a gentleman, who clearly worships his wife, daughter and three cats.

USA. New York City. 1992. Women walking on Fifth Avenue. By Bruce Gilden

So what did I learn from these “Gilden Days” in Wolverhampton? Here, partly for the benefit of my good mate Gareth Jukes, is just a few of the pearls of wisdom I picked up…

  • Never answer your critics.
  • Turn your shortcomings into strengths. Learn what you’re good at and stick to it.
  • Never trust a photographer who isn’t working on at least one ongoing personal photographic essay.
  • Never ask for permission to take a photo. TELL them you’re going to take it. Say “You don’t mind if I take your picture”. Note: no question mark.
  • Pay careful attention to your backgrounds. Pick a good spot with good light and wait for the right people.
  • Avoid visual cliches. Don’t take “tourist” photos.
  • Pick subjects with character. People down on their luck (“bums”) don’t necessarily make good pictures.
  • Be street-smart.
  • If forced to choose between protecting your head or your camera, protect your camera.
  • Be prepared to spend all day looking for a single image and not getting it.
  • Just because you’ve shot it, doesn’t mean you have to show it.
  • Don’t let your subjects “mug” for the camera. That puts them in control. YOU should be the one controlling the shot.
  • Don’t have too much wasted space in the frame.
  • Choose the height and angle of your shot with care.
  • “Form” and the moment makes the image.

There. Hope that helps. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this week and have learned things that I won’t forget in a hurry.

You can see Bruce Gilden’s “A Beautiful Catastrophe” exhibition at Light House, Wolverhampton until 13th July.

And if you want to get some idea of how he works, have a look at these…

Image by Bruce Gilden, from “A Beautiful Catastrophe”

Many thanks to Kathryn at Light House for this wonderful opportunity.


3 responses

  1. thanks dave street photgraphy rocks

    May 21, 2012 at 3:51 pm

  2. This sounds like it’s going to be a lifetime memory for you Dave. I’m really glad you got a lot out of this!!

    May 23, 2012 at 8:33 am

    • Yes indeed! So glad to have been asked. Many thanks.

      Also, i think the fact that people had travelled so far to attend shows what an important and unique role Light House plays in the photographic community of not only the West Midlands, but the UK.

      May 23, 2012 at 8:49 am

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