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Legendary Street Photographer Travels State Fairs—Captures Haunting Portraits, Plus More Of His Earlier Work

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Iconic street photographer Bruce Gilden recently took his camera to uncharted territory for him:

American state fairs. In his ongoing series, “Farm Boys and Farm Girls,”

Gilden documents the Iowa and Wisconsin street fairs through portraits of the fairgoers themselves.

All of the portraits are shot in digital color and extreme close-up, and, in trademark Gilden style, with the flash on. But in many ways,  this project isn’t a typical Gilden piece. The “aggressive,” and “confrontational” street photographer has made a name for himself shooting black and white images of “tough guys,” inspired by a Brooklyn childhood spent watching them from out of his bedroom window. “I like characters. I always have,” Gilden has famously said. “When I was five, I liked the ugliest wrestler, so it was easy for me to pick what I wanted to photograph.”

The digital color is also a break from his usual black and white images, which critics describe as having a “film noir” quality to them. In contrast, the vivid color of his state fair series makes them seem almost hyperreal. His beloved Leica S camera allows him to shoot with such detail and color from such a close vantage point.

Gilden says that he’s modeled his new style after “mug shots.” “If you go back and look at [photography] compendiums from Paris or from LA you’ll see all these criminal types so that always fascinated me,” he recently told Time Magazine. “These guys had no pretense about being artists or anything. They were just doing their job.”

Many of his ongoing projects turn the lens on groups of people who are rarely photographed in such a close-up way, from residents in assisted living facilities to casino workers to people at religious services in the Appalachian mountains. He doesn’t have a particular “type” of environment he likes to shoot in; as he recently told TIME, “The face is the environment.”

In his new series, Gilden says he was drawn to the way that his subjects were “very much in touch with life and death in a way that’s natural.” The NYC-based photographer continued, “The farm boys and farm girls are very Middle America, and that’s a part of America I don’t know well. I enjoy learning about people, seeing where they live, talking to them.”

For Gilden, part of the appeal lay in the vast crowds that attend the fairs. “The more people you see in a place, the more chances you have of seeing faces that are interesting,” he told Gup magazine. He was extremely selective about the people he photographed, shooting “5-15 pictures a day.”

As Gilden photographed the people, he also photographed the fair food. American state fairs are legendary for their creative, deep-frying-heavy menus, boasting offerings like deep-fried s’mores, coleslaw hotdogs, and strawberry shortcake funnel cakes. Gilden’s food photographs feature the items on a white backdrop, often in disconcerting close-up.

On the story behind one of the most iconic photos in the series: “The kid was crying when his cow had to be taken out of the contest. So I went to the mother and we had a nice conversation and she said it was okay if I take a picture of her son. I felt bad for the kid because I know what it is to work for years and then in a whole moment, something falls apart that’s out of your control. So I empathize with the kid, but at the end of the day, I’m a photographer.” (Bruce Gilden, Time Magazine)

Gilden, who is largely self-taught, started his photography career in 1968. His first long-term projects were images from Coney Island in New York and a series done on his annual pilgrimages to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Since then, he’s shot photos all over the world – including Haiti, France, Ireland, India, Russia, Japan, and England – but calls himself “an American photographer.”

Indeed, in 2008 after a long stint abroad, Gilden returned to America to photograph houses that had been foreclosed on in the wake of the economic collapse. Gilden, who went into the project with no knowledge about foreclosures, quickly became angry at what he says is essentially “legalized thievery.” His photographs in the series were intended as a commentary on “ how people in our country get used and abused.”

Gilden started experimenting with digital color and extreme close-ups in 2012 when he participated in Magnum’s “Postcards From America” project. During the Miami shoot, he was given a Leica S, a midsized digital camera that allows the photographer to tightly frame their images. He found that he loved the colorful, close-up portraits he could shoot with it, and continued using a Leica S on later projects.

Those colorful close-ups were featured in his 2015 book Face, the photographer’s first foray into color in 45 years.  The book, which features close-ups from his travels around America, Great Britain, and Colombia, is based on war photographer Robert Capa’s mantra: “If the picture isn’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

“My old photographs I would say were like stage sets: the viewer looks at it and it’s like looking at something on the stage, from outside. Whereas now, I put the viewer at the center. He becomes part of the picture. And these portraits are even closer. They’re as close as I’ve been.” (Bruce Gilden, GUP magazine)

Not everyone is enamored with Gilden’s new close-up approach. In an article for the Guardian, journalist Sean O’ Hagan described Face as “relentlessly cruel” to Gilden’s subjects, and says that, in the extreme close-up, “their perceived ugliness is paraded as a kind of latter-day freak show.” While O’Hagan concedes that Gilden may be attempting to shed light on underrepresented populations, he says that the gap between his intentions and the execution is “vast.”

Others are uncomfortable with how the extreme close-ups remove people from their context and don’t allow the subject to tell their own story. In an essay for Photo Fundamentalist, Thomas Stanworth says that shooting people all in the same way makes the subjects look like “a two-dimensional caricature,” and that the style means that “the actual person – the human being – seems surplus to requirements.”

On his subjects: “I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them or I don’t know them at all, yet through my images, I live with them. At the same time, they are symbols. The people in my pictures aren’t Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith or whatever; they’re someone that crossed my path or I’ve crossed their path, and through the medium of photography I’ve been able to make a good picture of that encounter.” (Bruce Gilden, PBS)

Gilden has been dogged by controversy for much of his career. In his role as a street photographer, Gilden became famous for shooting “surprise shots” of people with flash on, an approach that many in the profession believe is inappropriate or disrespectful. In an interview with The Guardian, fellow NY street photographer Joel Meyerowitz described him as “a f**king bully” and said that “all [his] pictures look alike because he only has one idea – ‘I’m gonna embarrass you, I’m going to humiliate you.”

He also courted contention with his 2015 Vice photo shoot in Appalachia. Writing for Photoshelter, photographer and journalist Allen Murabayashi said that his extreme close-ups “[did] nothing but reinforce a hillbilly stereotype,” and accused his photos of lacking empathy for the subjects. The other photographer on tour with him, Stacy Kranitz, was unhappy with his attitude towards his subjects and said that he belonged to the long tradition of “coming in [to Appalachia] and taking without leaving something behind or helping others better understand what is going on in that place.”

Gildan categorically denies accusations that his photos are exploitative or lacking in empathy. When speaking about the “Farm Boys and Farm Girls,” he says that he is “upfront and blunt,” and that he treats his subjects “respectively.” “I think the picture is the result of the encounter between myself and the person who I’m photographing,” he told Time Magazine. “There has to be some relation between us so we’re on the same page.”

But Gildan has never cared much about the controversy surrounding his work or his personality. “You see me, you talk to me – you’ll know who I am,” he said, in a recent interview with GUPS magazine. “I’m very direct. I’m not passive aggressive, and I don’t like people that much who are passive aggressive …Some people can deal with it, other people can’t.”

Gilden believes that the power of his pictures comes from his bluntness, and his willingness to get into a difficult emotional territory. In his interviews, he’s willing to candidly discuss his tough childhood, and he describes his photography, with its focus on the disenfranchised and the underdog, as an “outgrowth” of it.

On documenting pain: “That event, that moment, should be a catalyst to a springboard that makes you stronger. I had a very tough childhood emotionally, and I knew things that children shouldn’t know, and I kept it inside of me my entire life. My past was totally negative, but I used it as positive and it gave me that strength in my photos.” (Bruce Gilden, GUP magazine)

Although Gilden often describes his subject matter as “dark,” he believes that photography like his can make the world a better place. “My pictures are showing that there are problems in this world,” Gilden told GUP magazine.  “I think that the only way you can solve a problem is by confronting it.” And despite his jaded worldview, Gilden describes himself as an optimist.

Ultimately, though, Gilden shoots his photos out of pure interest in his subjects. “The people in my pictures interest me. I like them, and they motivate me,” he says. “I would like to get the soul out of somebody. That’s my main interest. I want you, the viewer, to feel that person.”

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