Jesse’s book review, A beautiful catastrophe by Bruce Gilden
Jesse’s review this week covers one of my personal books. This is a book I took a long time to come to and really respect. It wasn’t until I had met the man that I really understood where and how this book came to be. This is a great review, I hope you enjoy it.
“If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copy cats.”
– Charles Mingus
This was the sentiment after the early death of the famous saxophonist of the 40s and 50s. He gave us bebop and in doing so ushered in modern jazz. EVERYONE was influenced by him even down to his heroin habit. It was only once Coltrane and Miles kicked their habit and started coming into their own did the art advance again, Miles with modal and fusion, Coltrane with avant garde.
It seems to me that Bruce Gilden carries the same level of influence to current tastes of street photography, where some do it quite well, where most feel like dead copy cats. I have never gotten into Gilden, so when Bellamy offered me the book by him I jumped at the chance. You see with these reviews I tend to offer my ignorance. What I mean is if I don’t know about something or want to build a concrete sentiment about it… I research it and write about it. Here is my ignorance offered on A Beautiful Catastrophe by Bruce Gilden.
New York City was once described as a beautiful catastrophe by Le Corbusier. Throughout the book there are quotes on the city from various figures that make up really the only text in the book. I can’t say I’d expect a lengthy intellectual introduction that would poetically explain why we should appreciate this book, nor am I disappointed by the lack of.
Like his photography I appreciate the straightforwardness of this book. The photos themselves are pretty much his greatest hits from all of his photos he shot on the streets of New York. Some are quite iconic and some are relatively new. In addition to going over this book, I got a chance to go through Haiti and Coney Island at a book shop and enjoyed both. I also found he got into photographer after seeing Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English language film in Blow-Up (a film every photographer for see), which as a film lover was cool to say the least.
His style I don’t feel requires an explanation. I will say I wasn’t just struck by the immediacy of the photos, but of their underlying influence that I will work to. I am not sure if people only see the New York characters in his photos and come to find that as the point. I found in his style of the quick one shot that his framing is remarkably precise and in addition there is a heavy attention to shadow and this play on light and dark that becomes enhanced by his flash.
This description if taking out of context can perfectly describes the entire film noir genre. Mostly set in NYC originally, the attention to shadow and play on light/dark make up the aesthetics, while the films are always filled with these sort of character archetypes that populate Gilden’s own photos.
To further this, perhaps the most influential film noir was The Naked City by Jules Dassin. This film was popular because it was among the first to use the actual city itself as the backdrop with the director citing that he wanted the film to smell like NYC. Which it interesting for two points: a) the Bruce Gilden quote that it isn’t street photography if you can’t smell the street and b) the director cited the photographer Wegee as his primarily influence for The Naked City. I never did find an instance of Gilden citing Wegee as an influence; yet going through The Beautiful Catastrophe I felt it.
The photos here vary in distances between single portraits or tight group shots. Judging by the fashion and technique (a more pronounced flash) it seems his older photos have more distance while the newer ones are quite close, but with the book they are edited together to the point where it isn’t very noticeable. I will say of the two, my taste prefers the older.
I think baseline to appreciate these you have to first like people. Then you have to like characters. Then you have to like characters caught off guard i.e. at their worst. So you see you get pages of these characters, and then what is usually a two page spread of a group shot with two still life photos thrown for good measure. Going back to my taste, having pages and pages of these characters only recalls the Jean-Paul Sartre quote that, “hell is other people” and really his characters inspire that much.
This by no means should be taken as disrespect. At the end of the day Gilden is a Magnum photographer and a Guggenheim Fellow who has become a huge influence. When people shoot the way you do and it is called by your name, love it or hate it your doing good. With that said my recommendation would be to gravitate toward Haiti or Coney Island (I will get one day but I am poor).
I also make this recommendation based on the actual quality of the book. The binding is flimsy and pages will fall out in A Beautiful Catastrophe. Just taking the photos for this review was a challenge because to spread open the book would cause the binding to unfasten. However if you are a truly a Gilden fan and want them all, this book is fairly obtainable through Amazon for under 20 dollars. If you are a New Yorker this makes a great coffee table book, if you have never heard of the other Bruce in photography or don’t own Coney Island…
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
Thanks for sharing this thoughtful review with us Jesse. You are right about the quality of the binding on this book, I was rather disappointed. But the quality of images makes up for it. This really is a taster book of Gilden’s greatest hits. You are right though, it will be a long time before I can afford Coney island too.