Bruce Gilden has been photographing shoppers crossing parking lots in Upstate New York under ongoing social distancing measures, focusing upon the now-omnipresent sight of people clad in masks of various forms. Working under a unique set of circumstances and with the specter of COVID-19 looming – the project has been approached in a novel way, with a photographer best-known for his candid work seeking approval for portraits and – at times – directing his subjects. Here, Gilden discusses working with what you have in front of you, the importance of adapting, and the rewards of doing so later in one’s career.
You have been photographing shoppers in masks for a few weeks now, in Upstate New York, near where you now live. Has it been hard trying to get the shots you wanted from this project?
Everything is in the details. I’m not a photographer who carries his camera around all the time. I’m only on when I’m on. When I was younger, I would go home and agonize over the shot I missed. I remember one time there was this guy by Nathan’s, in Coney Island, he was crawling on the ground, and it was near-night. I waited I-don’t-know-how-long until he got to where I was, I didn’t use flash and I didn’t get the image I wanted. That worried me… Had I been in the right place, did I snap the shutter at the wrong time…? Anyway, those days are over.
The only thing I agonize over now is if someone says ‘no’ to me taking a portrait when I ask them – but that doesn’t happen often in my candid work, because I rarely ask people. That’s changed with this new masks work for a few reasons.
One is that I am working in the parking lots of large chain stores: mostly Walmart. If I piss people off, and they tell security, I will get thrown out! So, by asking to take a picture, then asking small things like, “Hey, can you look to me?”, or “Can you walk that direction?”, it means they are aware and involved in the process.
Interestingly, what I found – compared with the few other times I asked people’s permission in my career – is that people seem more prone to say yes with the masks on. Like, they are disguised, and it makes them less nervous. Maybe they aren’t even conscious of it. I’d say something like 95% of people said yes… With Farm Boys and Farm Girls, when I had to ask, I probably had a 90% yes ratio – and I had a letter from TIME for that project, which didn’t hurt.
"A lot of my work has been about faces, and here you don’t read people’s expressions so well. As a result you are dealing with a smaller palate with which to make a good picture"
- Bruce Gilden
Did you have issues with social distancing and so on? Was that another part of the conversation?
To be frank, almost all the pictures are taken at less than six feet. I don’t read comments on social media, well, I almost never do, but I read one soon after I started this project, and it was like: ‘you are endangering these people!’
But these people in the pictures didn’t object to me being there, to my taking the picture. Anyone who said I was too close for them; I would take it back six feet. Maybe two people out of 150 said they didn’t want me too close, and in those cases it was too close for them even when I initially asked them about a picture from a way off. And that’s fine. That’s their choice.
To what extent are you directing people in these images once the dialogue begins? The conversation must change the dynamic between you and the subject, compared to your more candid street work?
Asking people does also give me more control, of course. What makes a picture or doesn’t make a picture is generally what’s in the details. So, with the masks, in the beginning I asked some people to adjust their mask a little so I could see their eyes, because maybe their mask was too high. Or I would say, can you look in my direction?
"You always need to find a detail that’s strong in any picture. [Sometimes the mask] doesn’t contribute. In those cases maybe it’s the look in the person’s eyes, or the tattoos on the arms…"
- Bruce Gilden
Did you find the masks a distraction, visually – do they add noise?
The mask is important, and sometimes it can add to the picture, but other times maybe the mask is white, or it’s not really ‘there’, it doesn’t contribute. So, in those cases maybe it’s the look in the person’s eyes, or the tattoos on the arms…
I am seeing more and more of these masks that remind me of old cowboy films— Westerns, the guys who robbed the banks! You know, a bandana type thing. More people are wearing those. So, when I see that in my head it goes: ‘Ah! Black and white, cowboy movie, being a kid!’ To me this is also almost like a science fiction essay, with the masks, everyone is wearing them – used to be only the bad guy, you know? There is a real sci-fi feel to all of this. I am always photographing my childhood influences, as they are the strongest I have.
So anyway, once you see that mask – and it interests you – you have to think about the rest of the picture – does it interest you too? Does he look like a tough guy, is he old and frightened, does someone have amazing hair, or eyebrows? I see these things and decide if the person is worth asking for a picture. Over an hour I might only ask three people in the lot… out of maybe 500. It’s a selective process.
There are so many computations… And they have to be taken in pretty much instantly. I have been doing this for maybe three weeks now, and I do a few hours a day in the lot. But I am still getting good pictures. They aren’t all great, but some are. Some of these scenes have a lot going on, masks, patterns, tattoos, writing on shirts or hats or whatever, others there’s less noise – but whatever it is you have to be able to see these things. If you don’t see ‘em you aren’t going to get ‘em.
I have a vision, and I know what I want to say. I am always doing Bruce Gilden-type pictures, and here it’s a little different because of the masks. A lot of my work has been about faces, and here you don’t read people’s expressions so well. As a result you are dealing with a smaller palate with which to make a good picture. I think I did pretty well under the conditions, though that said, I couldn’t have made any of this work without the help of my wife, Sophie.
Aside from working in a way that’s somewhat novel for you, do you feel the images are notably different in feel? I mean, beyond the obvious presence of masks and so on.
With coronavirus, a lot of people are afraid – to varying degrees. With these images I am trying to convey what’s in the air (that’s a nice double entendre!). Everyone is questioning themselves: should I wear a mask, shouldn’t I, should I even be here, be out the house? There are so many questions, all fed by something different each day from the media, the authorities, or the doctors. So, I tried to convey that. That sense of unease and questioning. The fear. Part of that comes into the pictures from the dynamism they have.
The people are almost running away from the virus. I mean – these are the stories I make up in my images. I think you can tell there’s fear and unease at play. I don’t ask everyone to see how I see, but that’s their bad if they don’t. There’s motion. I want people in motion, fleeing from the germs, or whatever. But all of this comes down to experience and using what’s there in front of you. And – in the case of these images – interacting with the subjects.
Are you enjoying finding this new way of working, or do you see it more as a fix for a difficult set of working conditions?
If you are a cook – you know what tools you need to make certain dishes. For me, I know what I need to make certain situations work. This was for me a process of elimination. I can’t work alone with the Leica S: it’s too heavy. I had no assistant because of coronavirus. So, I had to use the smaller camera. But that in turn, plus my speaking to people more, has added the dynamism to the images.
"To me, these pictures look like they might have been made by a younger man. It’s really important that I have learned a new way of working at this older age. It’s important to photograph who you are and what interests you, not what you read in a book."
- Bruce Gilden
Was it easy for you to adapt to all of this?
I have always adjusted.
Look at my career: I never shot color until 6-7 years ago, I had never used a big camera either. I had times when I photographed houses all across America. I have spent periods when I exclusively made portraits, had periods making only street photos… You can’t make the same pictures all your life. You have to move on. By the end of my time in New York City, working there, I was spinning my wheels – I had to find something else to do.
That’s why I was always quite admiring of the Japanese photographers like [Shōmei] Tōmatsu and [Kikuji] Kawada – they were always changing what they were photographing. The only difference there is that I think for some of those guys, their first bodies of work were their best work. The ones they had in their guts. They changed, but often the pictures weren’t as strong after.
For me, I never wanted to give in and do those ‘old man pictures’. I didn’t want to go into nature you know, start taking photos of shells on the beach, or whatever?
Earlier in my career I was making photographs of the city, of places – with people in them of course, but they captured the place. In the late 80s my photos became more about the individual. And that’s what these images fit into. The other day I took one in the parking lot that was much more still. It almost looks like a Duane Hanson sculpture. It has my name on the picture though – no one else would take this photo in this way.
So yes, I have had to adjust over time – in terms of the way I make photos. And maybe the type of photos I make has changed. But I have always been interested in the same sort of people, from my earliest pictures of Coney Island to now… Different sorts of pictures, but the same people. I am approaching this work differently. It’s a change in process. But I am still working in the same way in terms of what I see and what I am looking for.
To me, these pictures look like they might have been made by a younger man. It’s really important that I have learned a new way of working at this older age. I have just learned from experience. It’s important to photograph who you are and what interests you, not what you read in a book.