New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, which precedes the penitential season of Lent, was experiencing a mass of changes in the 1970s. It was during this time that a 27-year-old Bruce Gilden, drawn towards the festivities' masked and costumed characters, decided to embark on his first photoessay outside of his hometown in New York.
“The parade calendar, which had grown from 20 processions in 1960 to 33 by 1970,” notes Mardi Gras expert Arthur Hardy, “saw even greater expansion, reaching 51 parades by 1980.”
While the large processions were banned from the narrow streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1973, the Mardi Gras was evolving into a more socially inclusive event. In 1972, the Mystick Krewe of Apollo hosted the first gay ball at the Municipal Auditorium.
It's a town like anywhere about prestige. It's a good old boys club
But among this modernisation, there was one central factor that remained the same since the first Mardi Gras parades in 1837, its debauched 11-day celebrations.
Coming from the Latin words carnis for flesh and vale for farewell, Carnival encouraged sexual liberties and intoxication in the run-up to Mardi Gras and continued in full force in the 1970s. Still providing the opportunity for individuals to explore their deepest eccentricities behind the comfort of a mask and costume – something that Gilden hoped to capture.
Having observed street life from his second storey flat as a child in Brooklyn, Gilden always held a disposition for characters. An interest further perpetuated by his cigar-smoking, tough guy father.
Today, he often credits his success as the most aggressive and insistent of all photojournalists as a continuous rebellion against Gilden Sr. “I idolised my father. He screwed me around,” said Gilden in a 2010 interview with The Guardian. “The reason I stick a flash in people's faces is to get back at him in some way.”
Thus, in January 1974, with his wife and Leica M4 – albeit with no flash – Bruce Gilden set off down to New Orleans in search of some interesting individuals...
What made you decide to go to New Orleans?
What happened is I'd seen some pictures by people who later became my friends. Charlie Gatewood was one. There was a picture I really liked – I can't find here, I have it in a book somewhere – it's a guy dressed in a Roman gladiator costume with two regular guys in it holding beers and leaning against a car.
I like characters. My father was a character, I'm a character, it's always been my interest
I'd seen some other pictures from photographers who were going down to the Mardi Gras and I said, why not go. The only essay I was doing at that time was in the summer in Coney Island, which in the winter is pretty flat. I also hadn't started any New York City work yet.
What was going on in your life at the time you left?
I didn't have a lot of money, not that I do now. At that time, I thought of going to India because I thought it was so exotic but my world was a lot smaller then because I had to be able to afford it.
So, I used to drive down to New Orleans with two dogs in the car and my wife. She'd do her thing, which was just walk out and look at stuff because she's a painter, and I would go to take pictures.
This was your first time to leave New York to do a photoessay. Had you travelled around much before?
I'd been to other places but I specialise in long extended photoessays. This became another one of those. That's my intent, as long as I get good pictures.
With Coney Island, you focused on bodies. What elements were you looking for at the Mardi Gras?
Well... I like characters. My father was a character, I'm a character, it's always been my interest. Coney Island was bodies because it's at the beach. Now, I say that I wouldn't photograph many heavy people but I can make erroneous statements.
I say I don't like to take pictures of people with glasses yet one of my best pictures in New York City is a man and a woman with sunglasses on – he's wearing a toupee and she's got a wig on.
I can't 'out Cartier-Bresson' Cartier-Bresson but I can be the best Bruce Gilden possible
There are exceptions but New Orleans, what struck me was ‘the costume’ as opposed to what people wear normally. The trick was to try and get behind the costume in the photograph, to show that there was something there. That's the toughest part.
Because they’re hiding?
They're parading. I prefer to see their real selves. Not who they think they are or who they want to be. When I put this book together, I hadn't been sitting with those pictures and looking at them since but when you go back to them certain things cross your mind.
I noticed that a lot of women were wearing kerchiefs on their head but I also had several pictures where you see blacks or whites in it. The South comes from a different culture than we have and I was conscious of it. There were a lot of poorer people, whites and blacks. The first picture I remember taking was this white kid in a prince costume and in the back you see all these poor blacks milling around trying to get the beads. I noticed the contrast.
You arrived 10 days before it started?
I would arrive the Saturday or Sunday before the last Sunday, so around 10 days. It's a week, or 10-15 days before the Mardi Gras itself. Mardi Gras in French means ‘Fat Tuesday’, so the weekend before has the heavier days but before that they have parades. Every night.
I was driving on a Friday morning and would arrive in New Orleans on a Saturday night and that's really pushing it you know, falling asleep at the wheel and sleeping in the van for a few hours. I always enjoyed myself going down there but joy maybe isn't the right word. I found it interesting...
We slept in the back of the car. I had my two dogs and my baseball bat next to me, just in case
The weather there was always different. In the morning you would go out and it would be pretty nice but by the evening it would be cold as hell. Sometimes it would be 45F and sometimes 75F. You had to bring extra clothes, which I didn't know. So I got sick the first time I went.
Everyone was still wearing their skimpy costumes in the evenings?
Yeah but also in one of my pictures there's a guy walking in the sunlight, he's half horse and half man. It was the daytime, when it was relatively warm, and he was dripping wet. There was also a lot of gay people there, it was a haven for that. I had my special bars where I would sometimes take pictures. I had fun. People were cool.
You said the lesbian bar weren't so friendly as the gay bars?
No, they weren't. I still stand behind that ok. I remember the ones on Rampart Street, which is a big street, parallel to Bourbon Street and when you walked in there, woah you didn't last long. They made sure you weren't comfortable because if you're taking pictures, you're another threat you know.
And you stayed in a boarding house in the Red Light District – where they made that Louis Malle film?
Yeah where they made Pretty Baby . And I got sick because it was very damp, between that and the change in temperature I got a pretty bad cold. I had a big room, old fashioned. I don't even remember if there was a toilet in the room. It was in the corner of the house with a little veranda in front of the house.
Do you remember any of the other tenants?
I don't even remember how I got my key. There was no one at the front desk or anything. It was probably a cheaper place to stay but not run down. And in those days I used to sleep in my car...
There was this one time when we had to go and sleep in the back of the car. I had my two dogs and my baseball bat next to me, just in case. And just as I lay down to sleep, someone comes in my van. I say, who the fuck is that? The guy tells me, it's the police. I said, how did you get in here? He said, your door was open. I said, don't give me that bullshit I locked the door before I went to sleep.
I'm pretty good at moving. At that time, I could move through any crowd
We became friendly after that because I used to see him around Mardi Gras but he never would admit to me that they had a special key or something to get in. He was in the car in one second, he heard some sound and he was inside. I didn't forget to lock that door because I wasn't drunk or drugged out. I was totally conscious.
In the mornings I used to also look forward to my breakfast at the drug store, they used to have breakfast for a dollar. It was eggs, grits and coffee. It wasn't very good but it was a dollar, and grits are pretty cool.
How were you dividing your time between the areas? Didn't they stop the large parade going through the French Quarter in 1973?
Yeah but that didn't matter. I think it was Al Hirt, the trumpeter, who got hurt. Somebody threw a beer bottle that hit him in the lip so they stopped the parades from going through there. Actually that's not true, now that I'm thinking, sometime when I was there in the 1970s there was a parade that came through Bourbon Street [in the French Quarter], maybe the Monday night parade.
I remember there was these black kids pickpocketing all the people around. I reached in my pocket and felt a little hand. So I turned, because I was going to smash the kid because I don't go for that, but I couldn't find the person because I didn't know where the fuck they went.
It was like sardines. I didn't know how anyone could move and I'm pretty good at moving. At that time, I could move through any crowd. There was a parade that went through, maybe the day on the Tuesday, but there were no floats. But that doesn't matter because you just went down to Bourbon Street on Canal, and that was where the floats went through. Sometimes a float would get stuck and when the float got stuck, that's when I got some of my good pictures – with women in masks on the bus because they were an hour and a half late.
On Mardi Gras day they have krewes. There was this black krewe that was supposed to be pretty cool. There are richer krewes and there are poorer krewes, so of course the bigger floats are the richer krewes, and they have more to throw. It's a town, like anywhere, about prestige. It's a good old boys club. But everyone was generally pretty cool. New Orleans is the only place in America that I've been, that I could tell you that I could live maybe. It has something to offer, it's got a soul.
Did you have a specific approach to the crowds at the Mardi Gras?
No, it's the same every place you go. Later, my photographs got closer and I made the viewer more central to the picture. That time I was still doing what I would call, stage set photography. Where you're not a participant. You're a viewer also. The only adjustment I can remember making was that I used to take some pictures of all these girls on billboards in front of the place, advertising with their boobs and everything. Different environments entail different things. But I'd say everything was pretty similar.
I can go back and probably find good pictures but there comes a time when you've done your thing
That was also the first time I started using a little bit of flash – near the end of my photoessay on the Mardi Gras, in the early 1980s. That also brought a different approach.
In what way?
It allowed more possibilities. You're isolating things more, at night especially. In the daytime you still have to deal with the ambient light but that's what I like about flash in the daytime is that you're able to get the central character closer and you focus more on that person or people. The flash highlights it and that's what I always wanted to do anyway. There was one comment that I made a few years ago, I can't 'out Cartier-Bresson' Cartier-Bresson but I can be the best Bruce Gilden possible.
And was there a big contrast between the Mardi Gras at daytime and at night?
Night-time gets a little wilder. I remember what these people would do in the street. It was like being in a sex club. I saw things that were pretty wild, out in the public. Some of them are pretty disgusting but I'm not a prude. I could see some people complaining about it saying, god look at that – someone from Middle America.
There were certain corners – not that they weren't allowed – where they wouldn't hang. Where they have the gay transvestite contests and leather contests... The music is also very good in New Orleans.
Dr John's album In The Right Place had just come out the year before in 1973 right?
I went to see Dr John. But my big treat was – I didn't even know who he was the first time – some rich Panamanian kid was like, let's go out and see Professor Longhair. Who the fuck is that, you know? So we saw this old guy with dark sunglasses and a grey sharkskin suit and he was great. That was the king and Dr John was the disciple.
In 1982, why did you decide to stop the Mardi Gras photoessay?
I'd had enough, nothing lasts forever. I said what I was going to say. I can go back to anywhere and probably find good pictures but there comes a time when you've done your thing and you're ready to move on. You go to the next phase.
It must be a different place now after Hurricane Katrina?
I wouldn't mind to see it now. I've only been back once since that time and that was for a couple of days. I tried to get into the Republican Convention, Robert Stack was there. I didn't have credentials so I didn't have a good time shall we say. Maybe somebody should send me back to New Orleans, I'll go for a few days. I'm sure it's changed.
You were going to Haiti before and after the earthquake struck there didn't you?
Yeah, I was there five weeks after the disaster. I had to have a hernia operation, which was really hurting me after five years of saying no, no, no. I didn't know where I was sleeping and if I had a struggle, I didn't want to be airlifted out with the others you know. I went back five weeks after the earthquake and I still hadn't had the operation but I wish I would have been there right after.
That's my second country, Haiti. I felt I wanted to be there because I love the people. What can I say... I got there five weeks later and there were less buildings.