'I don't like the feeling I have a right to every image that is there'

Carrie Mae Weems: Speaking of Art (2004)

Among the first things press photographers and journalists learn are their rights to operate.

In a public space? Fine.

Outside a court? Use a long lens to capture the defendant but avoid showing the environs of the court building (because of the potential risk of being found in contempt of court).

Police officer demanding to see your photographs? They can’t forcibly do so without very good reason.

And so on.

The work of journalists and press photographers often takes place within the margins of antagonism, and there are few better surveyors (creators?) of these margins than street photographer Bruce Gilden.

For those unfamiliar with Gilden’s work, he’s known for pouncing on unsuspecting suspects and shooting them with flash at extremely close quarters.

As for his subjects, well:

“Some are taken unawares, some are surprised. Some didn’t know what hit them. And I think most people like to be photographed. But since I work in a spontaneous way, I have to be a little bit sneaky because I don’t want them to know that I’m going to take a picture of them.” Bruce Gilden

Gilden’s work is photographic Marmite.

Where the former creative director at Magnum Gideon Jacobs hears “a silent scream, like a mute desperately trying to convey to me, “THE FUCKING TOWN IS ON FIRE!” in Gilden’ work, the photography writer Sean O’Hagen finds people “being mugged by his camera”.

There’s undoubtedly humanity in much of Gilden’s work. But I’m also seeing an overbearing amount of Gilden himself through his modus operandi.

Am I seeing an interesting face on streets of New York or a face made interesting by the intrusion of close quarter flash?

I mention Gilden’s work here because he, in his bulldog approach, raises important questions about what it is to make a photograph of somebody we do not know, and that triangular relationship between subject, viewer and photographer.

In the 2004 short film Carrie Mae Weems: Speaking of Art (2004), Weems touched upon her travel photography work.

“Usually, when I travel, I don’t like photographing other people. I don’t like that experience. I don’t like the feeling I have a right to every image that is there, and that I can just it unless some other kind of negotiation is made.

But I want to be with sugar cane workers and tobacco workers and so I sort of set up a series of relationships with people who are working and I’ll work, or walk, along with them if only for half a day.” Carrie Mae Weems (2004)

In short, her approach is engaged and, more importantly, negotiated - the polar opposite of Gilden’s photographic stalk.

There are many ways of approaching the ethics of photographic method. Here, I’m mindful of John Dewey:

“Let us follow the pragmatic rule, and in order to discover the meaning of the idea ask for its consequences… A moral situation is one in which judgement and choice are required antecedently to overt action.”

What are the consequences of Weems’ approach?

She wants to “position” herself so as “to feel what it [is] like to chop tobacco, to chop cotton, you know, to pick coffee”, to “the activity of that thing”.

She seeks what she calls the “physicality” of an interaction, a place or a person. Few photographers deliver that sense of physicality better (or with, when appropriate, greater humour and power) than Weems. Yes, much of her work features her own physicality - her body - but it applies equally to her travel work.

There’s a great degree of physicality in Gilden’s work also. But it is a very different form of physicality. And one that is experienced very differently by the third point of the triangle: the viewer.

Imagine there’s a party. Weems struck up a conversation with the organiser earlier in the day, and was invited in. Gilden gate-crashed it with his flash.

The resulting images will be very different (though compositions equally judicious). Weems’ work would, I suspect, give us a sense of the party, her encounter with the party, a subtle insight into some of the relationships between people in the party, what it felt like to be at the party. Gilden’s images will reveal up close and confrontational the gate-crash moment and, should he manage to gain entry, jumped portraits of people who caught his eye.

Many will marvel at the testicularity of Gilden’s work. Nobody is better at doing what Bruce Gilden does.

But if the object is to reveal the sense of the party, I suspect Weems’ method will yield more, and more deeply. And what of our roles of viewers of the two streams of output? Are we complicit in Gilden’s gatecrashing by devouring his produce?

There is a further complication here (beyond the obviously clumsy comparison of street photography and Weems’ more considered artistic practice) and it stems from Weems’ expressed desire to see and feel (as far as she is able within the confines of time and relationship with the place and people involved) from the ‘inside’.

Gilden is ‘of’ the streets of New York. He is seeing the place and the people ‘from the inside’. His New York work charts the encounters of, in his terms, ‘his people’ - even if he doesn’t know them. His method itself is an aspect of New York. It is forceful, edgy, too-close-for-comfort, shocking and grabbed. But try to be Gilden in my home town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, and I doubt the result would be at all pleasant.

Beyond issues of Gilden’s approach, our role as viewers and the ‘involvement’ of his subjects, his oeuvre offers an incredible journey into New York itself. And it is as a collective statement about New York that his work is almost perfectly resolved.

Does his method yield similar insight in Haiti? Or Paris? Or Birmingham?

Personally, I’d trust Weems to guide my eyes.

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