You can almost always distinguish a Bruce Gilden portrait. Whether in colour or black-and-white, portrait or street scene, they posses an almost alarming sense of physical intimacy with their subjects. The Rabelaisian range of humanity is pushed front and centre. Though there can be great beauty in them, it is very seldom of a conventional sort.
Gilden is the subject of a new exhibition at the Leica Gallery in Mayfair. Detroit: Against the Wind gathers over 20 new black-and-white photographs commissioned by the gallery's eponymous camera company and shot on the Leica S-System and M-System. A spiritual sequel to his 2009 Detroit series, the new images look at the vibrancy and the desolation of the beleaguered post-industrial city.
In a statement about the series, Gilden praises the Motor City's spirit: "I'm inspired by the beauty in this apocalyptic place, a place that not only breeds violence but also poor education and poverty. It's a great city that suffers and yet has kept its soul. Detroit's inhabitants, in their own way, don't give up." Against the Wind is named for a lyric by the Detroit-based singer-songwriter Bob Seger.
Born in Brooklyn, Bruce Gilden originally studied sociology at Pennsylvania State University. He was realigned towards photography by a single film. Given his recent propensity for inflating his subject's faces to enormous size and microscopic scrutiny, it's fitting that the film was Michelangelo Antonioni's countercultural classic Blow-Up (1966), in which David Hemmings plays a fashion photographer who discovers a terrifying magnified image of a gruesome event.
Purchasing a cheap Miranda camera in 1968, Gilden began driving a cab around New York City while taking photography courses at night. Though the job gave him title opportunity to take pictures, it did expose him the wide variety of the city's life. For much of the next decade he worked as a part-time truck driver for his family's scrap metal business, using his free days to roam the streets with his camera.
It was in the early 1980s, with his first series of New York photographs, that he shot to international recognition. His aesthetic began to emerge with his black and white pictures of revellers and misfits on Coney Island. Though not blown up to quite the proportions of his later works, they show a dedication to tracking the contours of the human face. They also signal his career-long interest in the grotesqueness that can lie in the quotidian, denuding their subjects of the glamour inherent in being photographed.
From that point on, his work acquired an ever-greater intensity. He began to thrust his camera in the faces of passers-by, capturing them far outside the sanitised environment of Blow-Up's photoshoots. Working across the world – in New Orleans, Haiti, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Australia, Japan and the UK, his work which recently appeared at the Barbican's Martin Parr-curated exhibition Strange and Familiar – Gilden has always been drawn towards the poor, the disenfranchised, the outsiders.
Where the works depicting similar subjects by Diane Arbus instil humanity and dignity, however, there has been some doubt as to whether Gilden possesses the same sort of sympathy. In recent years, his style has evolved into full frontal mug shots in eye-popping colour, printed out to show every peck, nick and blemish. Writing of the photobook Face (2015), Guardian photography critic Sean O'Hagan accused Gilden's latter-day work of being "relentless - and relentlessly cruel." O'Hagan continued: "I feel uncomfortable as a viewer – not because of the poverty or abuse etched on to the landscapes of these faces, but because their perceived ugliness is paraded as a kind of latter-day freak show."
Others have praised Gilden for his candidness, and the way his work shows humanity how it actually is. He has been noted for his sociability, his desire to really know his subjects rather than coolly observe them in the manner of the introverted Henri Cartier-Bresson. With his tendency to revisit the same location over and over again in search of new subjects, he epitomises the idea of the street photographer as visual anthropologist. His often experimental techniques have been lauded too, for their use of unconventional low angles and odd cutting.
Whichever side one stands on, however, it's clear that Gilden is one of the most distinctive forces in contemporary photography, and likely one of the most significant. The photographs in Detroit: Against the Wind should stand testament to that stature.