each man’s hell is in a different place:
mine is just up and behind
my ruined face.

―Charles Bukowski

We tend to think of portraits as flattering portrayals of people we love, or celebrities, or of people in power. The selfies and self-portraits that people post on Facebook tend to glamorize their lives and to present themselves as attractive, impressive and desirable according to visual characteristics that are valued in our status-conscious, media-saturated societies.

With his new book of portraits of less-than-glamorous people, Bruce Gilden puts us uncomfortably close to people whose faces contradict the idealized faces we encounter in magazines, movies and social media websites.

How would you describe these portraits by Gilden? Are these mean-spirited or simply just real?

The photographer has the cooperation of the people in the portraits — they stare or glare directly at us through the lens of his camera. They look alternately defiant, proud, angry, or humble. As if to say, “Yeah, sure, this is the way I look. Why should it matter to you?”

From the the essay by Chris Klatell in Gilden’s book, Face, we learn:

“Here are Bruce Gilden’s people, his family. He shares their teeth, their stubble, their scrapes and blemishes, their fear of death. In the women’s scowls, in their sternly ambiguous glances, he sees his own mother’s face, before she killed herself…

“We live in a world whose visual lingua franca has rapidly become the decontextualized, always posed, mechanically lit idiom of social media, of Instagram and, yes, Facebook (and whatever their successors might be). Far from rejecting this environment, Bruce’s portraits embrace it and grapple with it. They say to the viewer: So, you’ve constructed your ‘social network’ out of aspirational pictures, of yourself and of your ‘friends’, but what space does that leave for these people? They are my ‘face book’ friends. You need to look at them – at us – too. You can’t make us disappear with digital photo filters and social media platforms that act as a real world filter, sifting from your ‘community’ all that is discomfiting. We are here, closer than you might remember.”

[A short documentary shot with Bruce Gilden in 2008, on the streets of New York City.]

And the press release from the book’s publisher states:

A defining characteristic of Bruce Gilden’s photography is his creative attraction to what he calls ‘characters’, and he has been tracking them down all through his career. Growing up in Brooklyn with what he describes as a ‘tough guy’ of a father, Bruce Gilden developed a love of the streets, often calling them his ‘second home.’ The unique energy of the streets mesmerized Bruce, an energy that can momentarily expose something inside people that generally stays hidden. This new body of work, however, is somewhat of a departure for him in that these tightly cropped, full face images can be seen as ‘collaborative’ portraits. His subjects engage directly with the camera, and the photographs are all taken with permission.

Maybe they are just as raw and real as Nan Goldin’s self-portrait of herself with a black eye — but that was a self-portrait, and these are other people. However you feel about these pictures, they definitely are challenging to look at for a long, concentrated time. The book is larger-than-life, and puts the images literally in your face. Take a look and see for yourself.

—Jim Casper

by Bruce Gilden, Chris Klatell
Publisher: Dewi Lewis Publishing
Hardcover: 104 pages