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It was bound to happen. I had already been in New York City for a couple of weeks and planned to spend the rest of the summer working the streets. As a street photographer, Times Square is a natural draw. So, Times Square is where I began and that’s where it happened. First, a flash of light, then, a snippet of a safari jacket. At once, I knew this would be the day I met Bruce Gilden.
Bruce Gilden is the stuff of legend for street photographers all over the globe. A full member and vice president of Magnum Photos – the storied international collective of photographers – Gilden is one of the most prolific street photographers at work today. It was in the 80’s that he began seriously working the streets of New York City and quickly developed his signature style. Gilden is known for up close, black and white photographs punctuated by off-camera flash. His subjects: unique and startled looking strangers which Gilden refers to as “characters”.
So, what did I learn from this chance meeting with a great photographer? A lot. I’ve summed up the twenty minute sidewalk master class in four major tips:
Great photographers care about great photographs, not cameras. This was an important aha moment for me. I’ve never had GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) too badly, but there have been a few late nights reading B&H.com. Right away, I noticed Gilden’s very old and very used Leica M6. Now, here is a man that could have any camera he wants (and certainly a new one) and what does he use? The same camera he’s been using for decades but why? Because he knows the camera inside and out. He knows how it’s going to react in every situation. Despite this I had to smile, it was not only tapped up, I think it may well have been tapped together! I asked him about it. He replied that a camera is just a tool. He gestured toward my Ricoh GR IV and told me that my camera was just as capable as his. It’s the guy (or gal) behind the lens my friend. He admired my camera a bit more and well, I was ticked pink as the saying goes. Here’s Bruce Gilden admiring my little Ricoh. I’ve not wasted time lusting over gear since.
Just do it! I watched Gilden work. He’s not scared of anything. Imagine getting into a stranger’s face (mere inches away) and firing a flash. He does that, over and over again. The most interesting part? No one seems to care. Gilden even thanks people afterward more often than not. So much for the old saying about never making eye contact. He not only looks at people, he speaks to them. This was crucial for me to witness firsthand. I’ve been up close and personal with my camera ever since. In fact, the image below (Jackie Who?) was taken moments after my meeting with Bruce.
It may not be my best shot ever, but it’s an important photograph for me. It was the beginning of my own style, it was the picture which brought me out of my shell and allowed me to get close to people. I get so close now that people can smell my camera. Whatever you do, don’t shoot the streets though a long lens. The photos will lack a background story and are ultimately boring. Get a 28mm and get close, really close. Hey, if someone does say something to you just use this line: “Do you know that guy Gilden? He’s even worse!” I told Bruce about this quote and he laughed and said he’d be sure to use it himself the next time he got cornered.
Edit before you shoot! Many people don’t seem to be able to edit at all from what I see on Flickr. However, editing before you shoot is even more rare. Until I met Bruce I was trigger happy too. Hey, what the heck it’s digital right? No harm done, so I thought. But watching Bruce work revealed something to me. He doesn’t just shoot. He thinks about what he’s going to shoot, he ‘sees’ it and then decides whether or not to pull the trigger. So what difference does this make you ask. Well, it helps remove the clutter of mediocre shots from your life. Instead of buying five hard drives a year, now you can do with two! I know this sounds trivial and it is hard to explain well in writing. Just trust me on this one. Learn to see as your camera does and edit your shots ‘before’ taking them. If you shoot black and white, learn to see in black and white (as Bruce does) I promise you’ll see the quality of your photography improve. Uploading ten great shots at the end of the day will be a heck of a lot more satisfying than trying to find ten great shots in a hundred. You won’t look back.
Use a flash when you don’t need one. So who the heck uses a flash outdoors in bright sunlight? Bruce does. It adds effortless drama to the photograph, especially in black and white. You get some background defocus too. Overall it just adds a layer of ‘wow’ to your street photos with little effort. Of course, there is some learning curve here but give it a go and see what happens. All of my photographs were kind of flat and muted until I learned this trick from watching Bruce work. Now I hardly shoot without the flash. I went from a no flash guy to a flash guy overnight. Mind you, using flash will blow your cover. Sometimes you can get away with photographing someone when there’s no flash and they don’t even notice but chances are this won’t happen if you fire a flash. So, increased risk, increased gain.
My meeting with Bruce Gilden was but twenty minutes. In some ways it seemed like twenty seconds, in others like twenty days. Either way, I took away enough knowledge, tips, tricks and inspiration to last a career. Meeting Bruce Gilden was not only fun, it was ‘fundamental’ to my life and work as a photographer.
Michael Ernest Sweet is an award-winning educator, writer and street photographer. A recipient of both a Prime Minister’s Award and the Queen’s Medal, Michael divides his time between Montreal and New York City. More of his photography can be viewed at MichaelSweetPhotography.com. All images in this article are (c) Michael Ernest Sweet.