USA. NYC, 1986

Found, But Also Lost

A new exhibition of street photographer Bruce Gilden’s early work, compiled from a happy-accident discovery of old film, showcases a former New York.

by Eileen Cartter
Feb 9 2020, 10:30am

USA. NYC, 1986

Bruce Gilden’s shots are recognizable for their garish closeness. The street photographer, wielding a 35mm Leica and a flash, moves briskly down sidewalks to snap photos of the unsuspecting passerby who intrigue him. The subjects he gravitates towards look like they could get cast off the street for a Safdie brothers movie—“not-your-average people,” as Gilden puts it. “That's been what I've been interested in my whole life, and my whole photographic life.”

Lost and Found, the name of both Gilden’s new photobook and an accompanying exhibition from 10 Corso Como and Magnum, features images the photographer rediscovered during a recent move from the city to Beacon, selected from over 2,000 rolls of film Gilden hadn’t seen in a long time. Looking through his contact sheets and finding some images sans negatives, he realized he’s still missing some 250 rolls.

“So that's why it's Lost and Found,” Gilden said, “It's still [true that] things are lost.”

"USA NYC," 1987

The collection also reflects, of course, a lost era: the photos are all taken around New York City in the mid ’70s and ’80s, the so-called age of Taxi Driver (indeed, Gilden used to drive a cab around that same time; the book features a scan of his taxi license) oft-lamented for an analog grittiness, giving way to perceived authenticity. The photos also preserve an early stylistic moment in his career, before he started using his signature flash, resulting in images that, to him, are “a little less dramatic, and a little less perfect.”

If Gilden has become known for his high-flash, up-close portraits—people pictures, if you will, of New Yorkers and otherwise— Lost and Found presents a more zoomed-out view, more about the heartbeat of the city than the heartbeat of the individual.

“This is,” he said, “Bruce Gilden before he became Bruce Gilden.”

"USA NYC," 1982

Lost and Found the exhibition, on view through April 5 at 10 Corso Como in Manhattan’s Seaport District, is split into two sections: the older, rediscovered photos and newer fashion shots, the latter staged in ways that emulate Gilden’s candids. “The type of people that I'm interested in today are no different than the ones I was interested in then,” and his subject matter, commissioned or not, doesn’t change much.

“I'm shy, so when I started taking pictures in 1967, I went out in the street,” Gilden said. “I went to Coney Island [and] I would take pictures. This way I didn't need to ask anybody anything. And to me, being a native New Yorker born in Brooklyn and then moved to Queens, and having a father who was a mafia-type who was larger life, and a mother who was another character—I knew at five years old what I was interested in.”

"USA. NYC," 1979

Nowadays, for the most part, the photos we take live on our devices. We’ve moved away from a time when one is likely to happen upon a box of forgotten negatives in an attic, yet we all carry a camera. Today anyone, everyone can take a picture anywhere, anytime. Gilden insists this hasn’t changed his method: “It’s not how close you are to somebody or whether you use flash or not—it's how comfortable you are,” he said. “What would piss me off more is when someone would take a picture of me from 50 feet away, because I find that sneaky.”

“People today are a little just more uptight period, okay? Years ago, when there was more mano a mano, people did say excuse me very often, because otherwise someone might knock their block off, you know?”

"USA. NYC," 1984

These are photos of a gone New York, peeled away by systemic gentrification. Manhattan is, as it has been, for the rich, Gilden says, and people simply aren’t very interesting looking anymore. “Someone can say, ‘Oh, 1970 wasn't the same as 1932,’” Gilden concedes. “I always said it would be great to be alive in the ’20s or ’30s and photograph [people] with the cigars and the hats. Maybe it just keeps getting worse, visually.”

That goes for people as well as places, down to the old facades with their aggressive signage—the old “Welcome to the Peepshows” made for more interesting compositions. Looking at his photographs, you can see what he means: storefronts, most that are long gone (Gimbels), some that bafflingly remain (Cohen's Fashion Optical). “Years ago, you had mom-and-pop stores, you had this and that, and now it's all big conglomerates. It's lost its soul.”

It’s a narrative that, like most cross-generational hand-wringing, can feel simultaneously lovely, wistful, and grating. Nothing is ever as it once was. What exactly can we do about it, if not look back?

“I don't shoot in the city any longer,” Gilden said. “I don't think it would have the same people around, but you never know. I'd have to go in and check it out.”

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