Jesse’s book review – A beautiful Catastrophe by Bruce Gilden


by Bellamy /

5 min read

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.


15 comments on “Jesse’s book review – A beautiful Catastrophe by Bruce Gilden”

    Fabrice June 6, 2013 at 5:49 pm / Reply

    Thanks for this! Glad you mentionned “The Naked City” -sometimes Gilden reminds me Fuller, too.

      Jesse Freeman June 6, 2013 at 7:01 pm /

      Pick Up on South Street right?

    steve June 7, 2013 at 3:39 am / Reply

    I have to agree with what Joel Meyerowitz said about Gilden.

      Jesse Freeman June 7, 2013 at 7:55 am /

      He’s a f**king bully. I despise the work, I despise the attitude, he’s an aggressive bully and all the pictures look alike because he only has one idea – ‘I’m gonna embarrass you, I’m going to humiliate you.’ I’m sorry, but no.”

    ZDP-189 June 7, 2013 at 11:33 am / Reply

    I don’t understand his work. It’s not something that I’d aspire to or that inspires me. I can’t explain his reknown, either. Maybe it’s simply the controversy stemming from his reputed attitude towards his subject, critics and peers.

    I won’t condemn the man or his work, because maybe it’s my lack of understanding and I lack the artistic or historical perspective to judge. All I can say is most of the people that I follow on twitter post images that speak to me more than his work.

      Jesse Freeman June 7, 2013 at 12:16 pm /

      “It’s not something that I’d aspire to or that inspires me. ”
      same here…not my taste. Charlie Kirk asked me why i wasn’t a fan of Gilden and for me it’s this… a lot of his “characters” only inspire in me that quote that hell is other people…

      Same time it was hard for me to be negative writing this because i am consciously aware that it is a matter of subjective taste, because he obviously isn’t shit…a glance for instance at his Haiti photos prove this…

    Colin Corneau June 7, 2013 at 11:46 am / Reply

    My compliments on a good review. I want to get this book after reading this.

    The photos presented here are fascinating – I’m no fan at all of an aggressive, inyerface approach to photography but Gilden is clearly a master of this approach. I say that because his images (at least the ones presented in this review) transcend technique and are something totally unique. Like I said, I want to get this book after seeing them.

    This makes me a geek I’m sure but the typography is equally interesting. Count me in.

      Jesse Freeman June 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm /

      Thanks you Colin! Wonder if i should of been more negative lol…i seriously picked some outlier photos from this book, the photo under the paragraph with the quote hell is other people (that fat man caught of guard and the old woman, which i don’t like) offer more of an accurate representation of the content of this book… the font is cool, but the book’s binding is quite shoddy….get Haiti lol and if anything ill trade you!!!

    Simone June 7, 2013 at 12:04 pm / Reply

    I love Gilden, I love and I hate him. I love his style and his brave way of taking the responsability of doing those kind of shots. In his picture I can see he is able to drag out of people their very deep fears and emotions, I feel he is showing the fear of the unknown, of the surprize, the fear of “what`s behind the corner”.
    I think he is a genius and anybody how has the same approach is just pathetic, is like somebody imitating Picasso. Sadly I can see many people trying to imitate his style, going out in the street and pissing off people flashing in their faces. The thing has been done, the genial part was the idea itself, anything else is just useless.
    This is my personal, very modets opinion, I never study photography and I am a beginner photographer too, but this is what inspire me when I look at Gilden`s photos.
    Thanks for the review, actually your reviews are all very enjoyable.

      Jesse Freeman June 9, 2013 at 10:58 am /

      Appreciate the honesty of your opinion…thank you for sharing and checking out these reviews.!

    Grace Hughes June 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm / Reply

    I’ve watched a documentary covering Gilden’s style and even shadowing him to see exactly how he shoots. Yes, it’s in your face. No, you don’t see it coming. There are a few things to look at…if you’ve ever seen Gilden shoot – it’s face paced, instinctive, on the spot, and damn good timing from composition and subject itself. To each their own, I am one who can agree to disagree. We all have our own visual critiques which is a beautiful thing. I can say on my end, that I do like his photographs because it’s raw, and allows the viewer to think. Whether you understand what’s going on, it makes you wish you did. His style is not my style by any means – I am very personal with my subjects. However, any photograph worth looking at more than usual and thinking about (I think) is a memorable one ;)

    simon kidd June 7, 2013 at 4:44 pm / Reply

    I can see where Meyerowitz is coming from, it does look like he only has one idea these days but this book does have some variation, I really like the group photo after the sailor hat one. My only problem with the close character photos is that after you’ve chewed on the exquisite characters there’s little else for me to feast on.

    As for his methods, I don’t care for it; I don’t care how he gets them it’s between him and his subjects. Would I like to be flashed int he face like that? It’s only happened to me once before and it didn’t bother me then and it won’t bother me now either esp. since I now have an interest in the ‘genre’.

    I guess it’s too early for the retarded PetaPixel readers to pop over and let rip about punching him in the face if he took their photo like that then authoritatively rant about what street photography is while hoarding photostreams full of long lens photos of ‘young girls’. Sorry, I just had to say that.

    I’ll add that I liked you’re write up. I also think the book is interesting and I too prefer the older photos.

    Personally I like the book but that’s all.



    Sandy blair June 8, 2013 at 2:03 am / Reply

    Thanks, for an interesting and thought provoking article, to add to those around Gilden and his work. The work I much admire, the man and his approach, I’m not so sure about. In art/in life, do the ends always justify the means? It is clear that Gilden has a strong influence on a certain element within the current generation of street photographers. I assume in the first instance said element are admiring of the work, but I can’t help but wonder if they are not also to a degree seduced (to the point of emulation) by the attitude and approach.

      Jesse Freeman June 11, 2013 at 2:42 pm /

      Thanks for the comment! I see what you mean, it seems to me the attitude and approach in a lot of cases. I think there has been a stigma in photography that well photographers are nerds…so i think with this Gilden approach it becomes a way to express a more desirable self image in proving something more…which misses the point and differs from what Gilden does…

    FeetfromShore August 17, 2013 at 2:07 am / Reply

    I’m an amateur photographer and I didn’t know who Gilden was until I read your post. I’m absolutely fascinated by the pics you posted and I really want to get to know more about Gilden’s photography style. Thank you so much for this review!

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