Bruce Gilden on his striking snapshots of darker side of Japan in the 90s

by Ayla Angelos

In search for those who stood out from the crowd, the iconic street photographer ended up capturing an array of homeless people, day workers and the Yakuza – Japan’s mafia.


When you hear the name Bruce Gilden, you instantly think of his garishly up-close portraiture. It’s the type of work that’s so direct that you can make out each of his subjects’ lines and wrinkles; the grooves of the face that truly give a clue as to who this person might be and the life they may have lived. Typically these people would be located in New York City – the photographer himself was born in Brooklyn, after all – captured candidly and unwittingly as he’d aim his lens and flashgun at them strolling by. Some have said that the way he goes about it has been forcefully (and successfully) creative, involving a lunge into the face of those unknowingly being targeted by one of the most iconic street photographers of our time. He’s even gone so far as to describe his own process as being full of energy and, while taking a picture, he’d be “jumping at somebody in a certain athletic mode, in a certain dance,” as stated in an interview with American Suburb X.

So let’s just say that Bruce needs little introduction, really, and his works have garnered huge attention across the globe, both the downright celebratory as well as the more controversial. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz once referred to him in an interview with the Guardian as a “fucking bully” and that he loathes 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 so sorry, but no.” With there being no such thing as bad publicity, so to speak, to then spark such controversy means he’s certainly doing something right. So much so that not only did he join Magnum Photos in 1998, he’s also published countless books of striking snapshots of the world’s street walkers, including his debut The Small Haiti Portfolio (199), along with Facing New York (1992), his first major tome exposing humanity for all its strange and beautiful idiosyncrasies.

Along with his accredited work in New York, Bruce has also traversed internationally to Moscow, France, Ireland, India and Japan. The latter he first visited in 1998, spearheaded by one clear intention: to find people who stood out from the crowd. “I’m always drawn to people who are outside of the mainstream,” he tells me, “however having said that, these persons have to be visually interesting to me. It doesn’t matter what their status is, I’ve always been interested in this type of person; it’s in my soul.”

"I’m always drawn to people who are outside of the mainstream"

Bruce’s desire to visit Japan in the first instance derived from an exhibition at MoMA in 1974, during which he saw a show on New Japanese Photography and was utterly blown away. “So I figured that if they could take good photographs in Japan, Why couldn’t I?” 20 years later and he finally fulfilled his inquest, with thanks to a French grant, Villa Médicis Hors les Murs, and a fellowship from The Japan Foundation. And when he got there, he expedited on a typical search for stand-out faces, the people that struck a chord with him visually in terms of their physical appearance, aura and mannerisms. What he found, however, was an array of homeless people, as well as day workers and the Yakuza – members of traditional organised crime groups in the city. It was an opportunity to document the other side of society; the judged, overlooked and stereotyped groups often left on the fringes. 

At the time of shooting, Bruce explains how it was a flourishing time for the medium of photography. “Culturally, it seemed that the photography scene was starting to blossom,” he notes. As such, he ventured out every day to walk the city’s streets, “returning to places where I thought I would be able to do good work.” The result of which is a series of stark, monochromatic imagery that often sees subjects scowling at his lens; frozen in a state of surprise; or posing coyly – and sometimes brazenly – with cigarettes in hand and an eyebrow raised. It’s very much a revealing depiction of the people that make up the city, achieved through Bruce’s usual tactics of brash and bumptious street photography. But also, quite comparatively, he spent a few regular intervals getting to know the Yakuza, Japan’s mafia, which naturally opened up a more personal window for his image-making.

“My work in Japan shows that a photographer can go to a foreign country where they’ve never been to and not only take good photographs in that place, but also delve into the soul of those who live there.”

Speaking of his most favoured image from the series, Bruce directs me in the way of the horizontal picture of two Yakuza, “where one is lighting up the other one’s cigarette.” He adds: “It was in a coffee shop in Ginza and when I saw the scene, I asked if they could do it again because I knew that it would be a wonderful shot.” It’s the very opposite to his process of “jumping at somebody”, but nonetheless an apt example of his ability to seek out a noteworthy moment. Another picture, in Sanya, a neighbourhood in the Taitō and Arakawa wards of Tokyo, was taken in the early morning of January that year. “I was standing in the cold with my camera but not taking pictures,” he says, “when a disheveled homeless man came up to me and started mumbling aggressively at me. Being streetwise, I was ready for him: he swung at my face and missed, so the next thing I kicked him in the balls, and he went down.”

Bruce is clearly opportunist just as much as he is exceptionally skilled at what he does; he’s able to wander the streets of any given location and seek out the golden moments for a photograph. Whether he startles, stirs or seeks permission, he’s sure to produce something that’s overtly telling about the human race. And after his visit to Japan in the 90s, this only solidified his practice even more so. “My work in Japan shows that a photographer can go to a foreign country where they’ve never been to and not only take good photographs in that place, but also delve into the soul of those who live there,” he concludes. “If you’re passionate about something, just go and find it by yourself.”


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