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.
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.
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.
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