Bruce Gilden photography workshop in Tokyo


by Bellamy /

12 min read

Bruce Gilden photography workshop in Tokyo
I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend Bruce Gilden’s Street Smart photography workshop hosted by Leica Japan over the weekend. It was a nerve wracking experience and filled with emotional highs and lows. If there is one thing I came away with it is how to swear in a Brooklyn accent, but seriously it was a very valuable experience.

I was a little bit apprehensive when I was asked to join Bruce Gilden’s workshop at the Leica Ginza store in Tokyo last weekend. I mean, Gilden is a famously outspoken photographer who does not mince his words and one of my good friends Charlie Kirk had told me in the past that he can be rather harsh. I am not known for my thick skin when it comes to my personal photography and I tend to not show a great deal of my work because of this. But I was told by a few people that it would be worth it, so I decided that this would be a good chance.
Day 1
They say first impressions last, and I clearly did not make a good first impression on Gilden. He has no love for camera geeks and when he was told I am one he was not overly impressed, as he said “it is merely a tool, a box”. I actually turned up a bit early, so I was basically the only student there with him, so I got a fair bit of one on one time with him. Still we laughed and shared a few jokes. But Gilden tests you, and when he asked me a question that I was unsure of the answer and tried to bluff my way through to he called me out as a bullshitter (true though, my fault really). Gilden likes to ask direct questions, and one of his first was “Do you want to be a photographer?” I replied in the affirmative, to which he said “why?” I was not really able to explain why in a direct manner and he pounced! “So why did you bother coming?” I was speechless and was only really able to give a garbled response. He then told me that if I was looking for inspiration or a kick up the ass then I was in the wrong place as I would not get it from him, it must come from me (which is actually a fair point).

At this point Gilden asked to see my work. Now I had only been given about 2 days warning of what I needed to prepare, so I had not really been able to put together a coherent selection of my work and Gilden pointed out that fact. In fact I think his words were something to the tune of “Shit, shit, shit. What where you thinking? This is no connection. You are lazy”. At first I was hurt and offended, but after a few minutes of thinking about this (while he tore into someone else) I realised that he was right. I have been lazy and I have not thought out my work properly in the past. I have been coasting along and not putting the effort into it that I could be.
Gilden told me that my backgrounds were poorly thought out, I was not close enough, not head on enough. It is not good taking pictures over peoples shoulders. I should be right in there. And there are no excuses, if you cannot get the shot then get another, don’t show a ‘could be’ shot. Framing was an issue that he repeatedly taked about with my work, and distracting backgrounds. As hard as it was, I listened and absorbed what he said.
So after tearing myself and the other students a new one I was set a task by Gilden. I had to go out and get waist up portraits from people that I have asked to shoot. He said that I am afraid to talk to people, which in his part is an unfair assessment, as I have no problem in approaching people for a shot.
I was about ready to quit that night and was in a foul mood, but a few of the other students told me to give it a try. You see, Gilden is not a gentle teacher and not the sort of person who will sit down and tell you you are great. He will not go after you if you storm out (he would probably say “fuck him, his loss”). So there was nothing to do but suck it up and get on with the job at hand. In other words, don’t be lazy.

Day 2
I was fortunate that the weather was good, so I set off to Ueno with camera in hand. I was loaned an M9 by the good people at Leica as I don’t have a digital camera and I would not have time to develop the film. I have no love for this camera, but it is simple, fast and easy to use. All of these pictures were taken on an M9, black and white mode, manual, with an MS Optical 50mm Apoqualia f/3.5 lens.
I have had harsh teachers in the past, and I knew that Gilden would pounce on me if I had not applied his suggestions to the letter. I could almost hear him as I walked around Ueno park, telling me to get closer, to remember my backgrounds and get symmetrical. As he liked to mention, he is a Libra and he likes symmetry. He also mentioned repeatedly that his father was a gangster and that is one of the reasons why he is drawn to interesting and often dangerous faces and places.
This was all coursing through me and I knew I had to get this on the money. I didn’t want boring faces, smiling faces. I wanted characters, faces etched with life, sadness, struggle and everything in between. Well, this is Ueno and you don’t have to look far for this. There are homeless people everywhere here, and they have some very interesting stories to tell.
But homeless people are not the easiest people to approach. So with a pack of cigarettes in my hand (bribes) I stalked around the smoking areas and the known homeless hangouts. You have to be careful though. I got shouted at and had a newspaper thrown at me. I also had some guy screaming in my face. Homeless people can be mentally disturbed in some cases and it is best to just walk away if you cannot get their approval.
I am not going to show all of the shots I took, as I asked about 30 people for portraits and only a few of them actually came out how I wanted them.

This was my first shot of the day. I knew it was important to get shots where they were acting natural and not smiling or showing peace signs. So for pretty much everyone I let them do their thing for the first shot and then I had a chat with them and got another one when they were being themselves.
Gilden was not overly critical of this shot, but he said that he is offset and it doesn’t work. His face is not all that interesting and that I should have pulled more into his face. I am certainly inclined to agree.
After a few more missed attempts or refusals (you get a lot and you cannot let it get to you, law of averages) I saw this old lady eating her lunch. I thought she might say not, but she was more than happy to have her picture taken and she was a real little chatterbox too.

Gilden said this one was the best of the day and that I had got exactly what he was asking me to do. She is interesting, the timing is right, the background is right and the way the laces from her jacket almost look like noodles works well. You must remember though, he does not heap praise, so he said “it works, it’s not shit”. Which is good enough for me.

When I get into shooting mode I generally forget to do silly things like eat or hydrate. So I had to sit down for a short while and have a drink. After a drink I decided to do one more round of the park before heading to Ameyoko. And I am glad I did.

This guy was a blast, he was drunk at 11am and smoking with his mates. When I shared a smoke with him and told him he looked cool he loved it. I didn’t even have to ask him to take a shot, he was well up for it. Gilden liked the character of the man and said that the only letdown was the background. I would have loved to have moved the guy (I couldn’t move as I was fenced in by bicycles) but I am not keen on manhandling a drunken tramp when I am holding a $5000 camera that does not belong to me.
After a wholly uneventful walk around Ameyoko (where everyone just smiled or flashed peace signs) I took one last turn in the park and found this guy:

He agreed to have his picture taken, but was not happy about the whole ordeal. He wouldn’t look into the camera and wouldn’t listen to me at all. Still, it worked and gave me the shot I was looking for. Again Gilden said about the symmetry being off and maybe getting closer to his face. But overall I was happy with it.

Overall Gilden was happy that I had listened and done what he had asked. As I mentioned, he is not a man for praise, but I felt like I came away from it learning something about how to interact with the subject to get the best from them.

Day 3
I had been told by Gilden to carry on with what I was doing, as I seemed to be getting into it and I could go further with it. So I decided to head back to Ueno. This time using the MS Optical Sonnetar 50mm 1.1. It is an interesting place and there are loads and loads of people there. I don’t want to take pictures of boring, plain people. And some of the most interesting people are the ones who have had the roughest lives. The smokers area always attracts the faces with stories to tell.

This guy actually wasn’t homeless. He was a little bit odd though. He was surreptitiously taking pictures of young children as they walked past, or at least he seemed to be. He was smiling at first, and missing a lot of teeth, but when I just asked him to be himself he dropped it all and came with this. A man who is not happy at all.
Gilden was happy with this one. He said that it is very hard to make this face look interesting but that I had done it. I had also taken great care about the backgrounds for these shots and he noticed that. In his words “you are nothing if not consistent”. That felt pretty good.
The second day was weird, I had a great hit rate, getting about 10 people to agree to shots immediately and then nothing for an hour. Everyone just said no. I even had one homeless guy give me a warning (a friendly one) about shooting there. I told him that I always ask before I shoot and if they say no I say thanks and walk away. He told me to be careful because there are a lot of very angry and depressed people there.

This woman was tiny, I mean really tiny, almost dwarfish. I had to get right down to shoot her. She was happy to have her picture taken and I really thought her face would be more interesting, but unfortunately it was not. Gilden said the the background was well thought out, but the face was missing something. She doesn’t seem to be able to make up her mind between happy or sad. But there is nothing really there, and that is why this image doesn’t make it.

Again this one was a case of nearly, but not quite (Gilden’s words). The shadows and light on the face work well, but he is not looking at me. He is an artist and can be regularly seen at Ueno, so I would like to try and get this guy again. His face is interesting. But again, consistency in backgrounds helps this one as part of the set.

The Frenchman. This guy was tall, about 6’4″ in his socks. I asked him if I could take his picture and he agreed, but he would not look into the camera, no matter how I coaxed him or scolded him. But this worked to the advantage in the end as I managed to get this shot. Gilden said he has an interesting face and left it at that. I took this to mean that it works.
By this point I was getting a little it tired and I had to be back in time to download my images and check them before I headed back to Ginza. As I was walking out of the park I though it would be good if I could get one last shot, and then I saw this guy:

He was perfect, the light was perfect. For the first time Gilden actually said something really worked, he description of the face was “monolithic”. The shadow and the light really helped to bring this one out. As gilden says though, there is no such thing as a perfect shot and this could benefit from getting closer in on his face. But I disagree (so sue me), I think it works just enough as it is.

Again, I think I did quite well and Gilden even said “well done, you did exactly as I asked, not many people do that” to me. After he had been through everyones images I asked him to look at some of my prints, as I felt I had not given him an accurate representation of my work before.

He went through them and was harsh, but I was ready for it. He said that there was a lot of shit there and some poorly framed pieces, but it was a lot better than the shit I had shown him before. Gilden does not like visual puns, and he was very harsh on any of those kinds of shots. But the pictures from Yasukuni of the right wingers he said had potential. I need to get closer. Currently my images are having to be explained, and if an image needs explanation then it is clearly not a very good image. It was good to get the advice from Gilden, even if it was strong. I certainly learned a lot about how I should be editing and selecting images. I am all over the place at the moment and there is no connection between my images. This needs to change.

After we had our images picked over we got to see some of Gilden’s work. It is great to hear the back story behind the Coney Island and Siberian Gangster pictures from the man himself. Gilden seemed to loosen up a bit and we shared some jokes, much to the chagrin of the Japanese translator, as she couldn’t get all of the (most of them were too off colour anyway). We also got to see some of his upcoming work from Rochester, Derby and London. There are some really strong images there and you can see he has not calmed down in his years.

Had you asked me on the first day I would have said “fuck it, don’t bother, the bloke is a total arsehole”. But it is not the first day. Bruce Gilden is tough and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. If you have a thin skin or you cannot take criticism then this is not the class for you. He doesn’t like people who kiss his arse or bullshitters, and he will tell you so to your face.
The main thing for me was that you have to listen to what he is saying, not just hear what he is saying. If you sit down and think about what he has said you are going to find that he is right. He has a wealth of experience and knowledge and that comes through. Don’t get caught up in him saying something is shit, look past that and understand why.
Some said that it was a waste of money and that you don’t pay to be insulted (even I said that at one point), but you really have to get past his manner and take in what he is saying, because it is valid and I think it can make you work to be a better photographer.
I am going to continue with this project, the faces of the dispossessed, as I think I can really go somewhere with it and mould it into something I like. It also enforces discipline on me.

I am not going to walk out of this and say that Gilden and I are buddies (I have the dubious honor of being verbally threatened with violence by him during the workshop). But I have learned to respect the man and what he says and does. I would certainly go again, and this time I would make sure I had edited my work properly.

I would like to give a special mention to my friends Royze and ShooTTokyo who both attended the course too and gave me kind words of encouragement. Thanks for helping me out guys, I hope you got a lot from it too.

Thanks for reading

37 comments on “Bruce Gilden photography workshop in Tokyo”

    Jim Donahue October 22, 2012 at 8:08 pm / Reply

    Great Blog, Loved ever word. But my assessment of BG is as always, He is a Rude overbearing person that is hiding something, he lacks any strand of love or compassion and is a total ASSHOLE. Thank you and have a nice day.

      Anonymous October 22, 2012 at 8:29 pm /

      Have you even met him before? :P

      Jim Donahue October 23, 2012 at 2:23 am /

      Yes in NYC in the 80″s on the street @ 42nd and Broadway.

    kinoz October 22, 2012 at 8:27 pm / Reply

    I would really like to meet him personally, seems like a very cool guy. :)

    Charlie Kirk October 22, 2012 at 8:40 pm / Reply

    Jim. The one slight problem with your comment is that you have never met the guy.

    Keith Fox October 22, 2012 at 10:29 pm / Reply

    Nice write up Bellamy. Bruce Gilden may be a tough teacher but the best ones usually are. No doubt I would’ve been tempted to go into the bathroom and have a cry, but “tough love” is necessary to get people to grow.

      kevin v mongolia October 25, 2012 at 3:33 pm /

      Hah. Keith, I was at workshop with him a few years ago and one of the women in the class had to leave for several minutes to collect herself in the washroom after she had her Gilden review. I don’t know if she knew what she was getting into (I mean the whole workshop and everything) but if she did, she was brave enough to volunteer first.

    Shaq Khaleeq October 22, 2012 at 10:37 pm / Reply

    Good and honest report from this Leica marketing event. Looks like it was a good time for you and the other Tokyo camera guys, so it deserves being broadcast by you guys across the web to get some attention. Great job!!

    Stefan Speidel October 22, 2012 at 11:30 pm / Reply

    Great photos, and a great description of the workshop!

    Ravi Juneja October 23, 2012 at 12:46 am / Reply

    Great post Bellamy, thanks for being so open about it and about your own journey with your work.

    Ravi Juneja October 23, 2012 at 12:47 am / Reply

    btw the last guy shot on Day 1 looks an awful lot like Daido Moriyama…

    Matthew October 23, 2012 at 12:52 am / Reply

    Sounds interesting, though it reminds me somewhat of the Monty Python skit where they pay to be verbally abused hehe.

    Brett Higham October 23, 2012 at 12:52 am / Reply

    Fantastic post Bellamy! Every week your blog keeps getting better and better. I look forward to continuing to read more from you.

    I’m glad you took a positive message from the whole BG experience, and you’re right it would have been the easy & lazy way out to just call him an ass & walk out.

    Keep it up.


    Eddy T October 23, 2012 at 2:59 am / Reply

    Awesome write-up matey! Damn, seemed like an intense and challenging workshop! Would love to meet Mr. Gilden in person, but for sure I’mma get my arse kicked.

    Alex October 23, 2012 at 6:34 am / Reply

    Great write up. Can’t say I (an amature photographer) would ever be inclined to take a Gilden class, but I love reading about it ;)

    Pat October 23, 2012 at 7:55 am / Reply

    This is an amazing blog post, I love Bruce’s insight and character and I believe he was correct in saying that the shot of the woman with the ramen was the strongest shot of the day. That is probably… in my opinion the only good shot of the set, and it’s a fantastic shot overall. I’m totally sold on him now as a teacher!!

    Leica Liker October 23, 2012 at 2:12 pm / Reply

    The teachers who have had profound impact in my life and work have been the toughest ones like your report of Bruce Gilden. Great post.

    Nathan Amedee October 23, 2012 at 2:32 pm / Reply

    Thanks for sharing so openly. It is very much appreciated.

    Tobias W. October 23, 2012 at 2:33 pm / Reply

    I’d rather go through root canal therapy than dealing with a personality like this! :) Photography is my personal escape from the stress of my day job. Why make it more stressful than my day job?!

    Also, Gilden produced some fabulous work although my personal taste differs from what he made his personal style. I wouldn’t be interested to get rude language just to come up with images that mimic a style I can’t relate to in the first place. Looking at Bellamy’s images, none of those appeal to me and it’s not Bellamy’s mistake.

    When I got feedback on my submission to the London Street Photography Festival [], the closing remark included a friendly suggestion to get more familiar with Bruce Gilden’s photography style and maybe apply that to my work. Looking at the images I submitted and the earlier remarks which were specific and spot on, I can’t help but think that the reference to Bruce Gilden is a copy & paste piece attached to every participant’s feedback, showing to me how overrated and at times irrelevant Gilden’s photographic style is when compared unreflected with new work emerging.

    Bellamy wrote how he strived to produce work that pleased Gilden in a way Gilden probably would have gone about too. I don’t think beyond the exciting experience, the rude language and thrill this would have helped me to grow as a photographer. So, thanks, but no thanks.

      cidereye October 23, 2012 at 3:20 pm /

      Indeed, wise words there.

      You can spend your whole life trying to please someone else, be like someone else and end up being unhappy or be true to yourself and satisfied. I like a lot of Bruce’s work, some very strong images. But would I want to shoot like him? Produce his kind of images? No, not really. That’s not to say he can’t be learned from of course which is an entirely different thing.

    Jason Paul Roberts October 23, 2012 at 2:38 pm / Reply

    IMHO the teachers who are hardest on you are the best. Good on you for sticking it out; it can only make you a stronger photographer.

    Roberto October 23, 2012 at 4:45 pm / Reply

    Hi Bellamy, nice to read your report; I appreciate that you share with us also the “uncomfort” moments.
    I sometimes heard that “camera is a mere box” by some photographers but I really think that they didn’t think so. What they want to say, I guess, is that camera always comes second to you (youself, your personality); if you’re not comfortable with yourself, if you’re not critic with your pictures, you’ll alway shoot bad pictures whatever camera you use. I’m sure that Eggleston loved his Mamiya, Ralph Gibson his M6, Peter Lindberg his Nikon. Usually is all about the handling of that particular camera and its reliability that count for a photographer, nonetheless they choose that camera and avoid the rest (think about James Nachtwey’s Canon). So, keep love your camera (I love mine) but always remeber that the Picture will come first and the Picture is You (not your camera). Cheers ;)

    jake October 23, 2012 at 7:34 pm / Reply

    Really interesting post – thanks for sharing.

    While i really enjoy my photography and put work i line i tend not to share it with people i know as i don’t want to have to explain my shots to people who are only used to looking at photos on facebook. I’ve not seen much of your work before and so it’s really interesting to see, a couple of really good shots there.

    I’m not a huge fan of Gildan’s work and attitude so i think i’d have given it a miss for fear of getting the reaction you had although i came very close to going to a similar event run by Martin Parr, and think i will do if he runs it again.

    Attonine October 23, 2012 at 9:35 pm / Reply

    I participated in a 2 day workshop with Gilden in the summer. I have to say my conclusions are very much in line with yours. I wasn’t offended by him, he has a definite, strong idea of what street photography is, and as it’s his workshop, this is the idea that the workshop is based upon. I received the same task as you, and like you, listened to what Gilden had said and did it to the letter. It got a little boring, but by the end of the workshop I really began to understand what his point was, and had learnt the lesson.

    For those who comment about Gilden as a person, his apparent abrupt and confrontational personality, I have to say that after meeting him in person I found him a very pleasant and enjoyable person to spend time with. He says himself that he has a good bedside manner and is a teddybear, and he really has and is. He is interesting to listen to, passionate and knowledgable about photography, and keen to pass on his points of view and opinions about the subject.

    I will add this final point for those who may be interested in taking a Gilden workshop. If you are not a real fan of Gilden’s style, don’t take the workshop. As Bellamy hinted, Gilden really likes front on, close work, and he will push for this. If you prefer street photography in the style of someone like In Public’s David Gibson (those weird visual tricks and strange/funny situations that can happen in the street), for example, you may not get much out of a Gilden workshop.

    Libby October 24, 2012 at 6:48 am / Reply

    The Noodle lady and the “monolith” man are just great. I like your crop on the man. On the “tiny” woman, I like those letters around the neck of her shirt, but here is just something missing.

    The best teachers are the ones who make you challenge yourself and make you think. I had one of the Bruce types in an assessment many years ago. We were asked to bring five 8×10 prints. He ripped 3 of mine up and set one on fire with his lighter. Best thing that ever happened to me. Honestly. Sorry but facebook likes get you nowhere. You’ll only produce more drivel in hope of more false validation. If you want to engage with the big boys, come to play and be prepared to take a hit.

    In some ways I think all of the social media crap and the way some portfolios are assessed these days are doing much more harm than good. Great post. Do you need any Vaseline after this?? :-)

    stanisław żółczyński October 24, 2012 at 3:41 pm / Reply

    Hi Bellamy. It was quite interesting to read about your encounter with Gilden. Teachers are good but, as he said, you have to have your own stance. Funny enough, him saying that camera is the box, which is true but he should add, a box you are intimate with like a good friend. As far I remember he uses Leica mostly with wide on it. He sounded like a teacher sending you off for a waist-up assignment. It`s a bit contrary to his customary street style, that is close up with 28mm, zone focusing, low shooting point, off camera flash thus no bother about exposure and often getting underexposed background which is helpfull to isolate the main subject and most of all, real gangsta way, shoot first ask afta. Smart as he is, he doesn`t want to coach new bruce gildens , instead he tries to fit the assignment to personality of the student.

    Mike October 24, 2012 at 9:35 pm / Reply

    What a great asshole!

      stanisław żółczyński October 25, 2012 at 4:56 am /

      He`s great photographer, and what he seems in private to other people shouldn`t be anybody`s bussiness.

      Murray October 31, 2012 at 3:29 am /

      Why not? Seems entirely fair to consider his personality. If someone gets good photos but is a complete prick to people then he deserves to be judged accordingly.

      Peter August 14, 2013 at 3:08 am /

      Wrong, the two should be kept separate. It’s called bias.

    Greg October 25, 2012 at 7:49 am / Reply

    Well written, great read. I felt like I was right there with you Bellamy. Well done. Sounds brutal at times, but sounds like you benefited greatly from the experience. Hope you’re well.
    Best regards.

    gregorylent October 25, 2012 at 8:51 am / Reply

    diane arbus got there first … now this style is a cliche

    it’s a LOT harder to show the light of life

    gregorylent October 25, 2012 at 9:17 am / Reply

    this whole post is a great opportunity to understand the limits of the photographic medium, how it distorts reality, and the direction in which that distortion takes place.

    it takes a certain kind of mind to be into photography in the first place.

    Pieter October 25, 2012 at 11:44 pm / Reply

    Hi Bellamy – nice report of our weekend with “the man” – I thought that you were probably getting the most out of it and should be a good input for you workshops. I personally had a great time shooting and the last 2 hours where Bruce stepped us through his photo’s was a great treat. I never thought I would shoot my Leica with a flash, but it is a fun technique and certainly requires you to put all your fears aside. Interestingly most people we shot seemed to enjoy it, or at least were curious “what happened”. I uploaded the day 1 and day 2 selections ( Good luck with your photo seminar!

    Ti Un Sen October 26, 2012 at 2:15 am / Reply

    Well guys, let’s be honest – 99% of all photografers are suckers, others are – Bruse Gilden, Cartier-Bresson, etc. Gilden only tell the truth about pictures, and this thruth about our pictures we knew already, but can’t said to themselves that we a suckers.

    David Green October 26, 2012 at 5:51 am / Reply

    Great post Bellamy. Thanks for being so candid. Tough love indeed…I don’t think I’m strong enough emotionally to attend a workshop by Gilden :-) The noodle lady shot is my favourite by the way.

    Jay October 26, 2012 at 6:25 am / Reply

    Wow, great post! I get nervous just reading it. Nothing stings like criticism. You are a brave man. Impressive work!

    The camera is merely a box? whatever..In retrospect, do you think a classic portrait lens like a 75mm would have helped get “closer”? Also, using a manual rangefinder up close with your subjects must have been nerve-racking, did you miss having a modern dslr?

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