Behind the Image: Bruce Gilden’s Subway Santa • Magnum Photos

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Theory & Practice

Behind the Image: Bruce Gilden’s Subway Santa

Bruce Gilden tells the story behind a New York Christmas Scene

Bruce Gilden

Bruce Gilden Santa waiting for subway at Grand Street. New York City, USA. 1968. © Bruce Gilden | Magnum Photos

In the run-up to Christmas 1968, at the age of 21, Bruce Gilden went on a photography class assignment that led him to witness a side of Santa Claus that is a far cry from his traditional wholesome image. Here, he tells the story behind this photograph.   

What is happening in this photograph?

Santa Claus is alone on the platform of the subway in Manhattan waiting for the train at the Grand Street station. We always associate Santa’s transportation as a sleigh pulled by reindeer but in this modern version, he takes the subway.

Where and how was this image made?

I was taking a photo class with Ken Heyman in Manhattan and the assignment was to do a photo essay. I went in front of Macy’s and there was a Santa Claus with a bucket collecting money for Volunteers of America. I asked him if I could spend the day with him and he said yes. This image was taken at the end of his work day, going back to the Volunteers of America’s office downtown. I was standing up the stairwell and he was on the platform down below.

If you hadn’t taken this shot, what would you have been doing instead at that precise moment?

Since I was 21 years old when I did this essay, I was always looking for subjects that I could photograph so more than likely I would have been somewhere else in the city with a camera in hand. I don’t carry a camera with me when I’m not photographing.

 Tell us a secret about this image?

Fortunately, I don’t believe in Santa Claus because when we left Macy’s and my Santa went downtown to the Volunteers of America on Houston Street and changed into street clothes, we went to the nearest bar and I found out that not only did he drink but he was an alcoholic.

My teacher loved the essay so he sent me to the New York Times to see if they would publish it, but since it was too late for the Oped page, it sat in my house unpublished.

Get more insights into street photography from Bruce Gilden with Magnum’s first online course. The Art of Street Photography. Start learning here.