Bruce Gilden, Lost and Found

JTF (just the facts): Published by Éditions Xavier Barral in 2019 (here). Hardcover, 192 pages, with 80 black and white photographs. Includes a multi-part essay by the artist and Sophie Darmaillacq. Designed by Oona Matta. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The title of Bruce Gilden’s new photobook speaks for itself – Lost and Found refers to more than two thousand rolls of black-and-white film recently rediscovered in the photographer’s archive. The pictures resurfaced when Gilden was in the process of moving from his apartment in New York up to Beacon, a city along the Hudson River. Made in the early years of his career, between 1978 and 1984, the New York city street photographs were taken without a flash, which later became one of Gilden’s signature approaches, and were shot predominantly horizontally, another deviation from his mature style. He spent most of this past summer going through these unearthed rolls, ultimately selecting around 100 photographs which have been published in this photobook. The photographs capture early flashes of the unflinching eye that has become Gilden’s trademark, and reveal a little known, and surprisingly productive chapter in his career.

A Gilden photograph is easy to recognize. He uses a harsh flash, often from low angles, and gets uncomfortably close to his subjects, often right up in their faces, breaking all the rules of personal space. His portraits are described as abrasive, cruel, intrusive, or just powerfully real, and his style has made him a polarizing figure in contemporary photography. The body of work published in Lost and Found is likely to find a wider audience. 

As a photobook, Lost and Found immediately stands out as a carefully crafted object. It has been lovingly printed, and the design feels genuinely simple and consistent. It is a horizontal book of a comfortable size, and the artist’s name and title dominate the cover as they appear in silver in all caps. With a few exceptions, all of the photographs are horizontal with a white border around them, adding a measure of extra white space at the bottom, an elegant design decision. The book opens with an interview conducted by his partner Sophie Darmaillacq, tracing Gilden’s development as an artist. The texts are produced in separate blocks, addressing a number of topics: “See What I See”, “New York and Me”, “The Test of Time”, etc. 

Gilden’s photographs present a diverse parade of urban characters, capturing sidewalk atmosphere and an occasional moment of drama. “You feel the dirt, you feel the sweat, you feel the sleaziness, you feel the tension, you feel… New York. I captured what was there and it was a tough time. It was raw, violent, and filthy but it had lots of soul. My kinda of town!” And this is the New York we encounter in Gilden’s Lost and Found

The book opens with a striking image: the hulking tweed coat of a man whose face is cropped out takes up most of the frame, while a woman, wearing glasses with curly hair pushed forward looks right in the camera as she holds the man’s arm. The control dynamics are uncertain – while the woman is behind the man, we get the impression that she is leading him, or at least that she’s a strong personality. This image sets the tone for what follows: Gilden lingers on the streets of New York, getting close to passersby, looking for awkward and tense moments, intrigued by its quirky and enigmatic residents.

Many shots capture the gritty reality of the Big Apple in the late seventies: a man fixing his sock in the middle of a crowded crosswalk; a homeless woman walking with a cigarette and a bottle of vodka; a blind man selling pencils. Others center in on wrinkled faces, eye catching fashions, and the unlikely juxtapositions and textures of the streets. Gilden’s New Yorkers never share a friendly smile or a glance; instead, they look interrupted, annoyed, awkward, angry, or indifferent, and while this rawness of emotions makes us feel like we are intruding, it is also very seductive. 

Another remarkable image captures a woman with shiny styled hair shouting on the phone inside a public phone booth; she is on the corner of Park Avenue and East 57th Street, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, yet the street sign is falling down. In a third, two men are on the street, with one grabbing the other man’s throat; it initially looks like a fight, yet the frozen look on the choked man’s face makes the act look rather staged and theatrical. These early photographs thrive on the chaos and energy of the city in those years. 

New York has of course changed quite a bit since then, and Gilden’s photographs capture a time that’s gone for good. Lost and Found isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia though. The rediscovered images offer the artistic seeds of what would come later for Gilden. While his mature style has taken personal intrusion to its logical extreme, the images here are evidence that he started out back a few steps further, using the context of the situation to tell more layered stories. With this history, we can now follow a clear progression inward in Gilden’s picture making, his interest incrementally moving toward faces and identities and away from scenes and moments. In many ways, this early work is more balanced and less punishing, and given its thoughtful and beautifully produced presentation here, Lost and Found might well be Gilden’s best photobook.      

Collector’s POV: Bruce Gilden is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where he became a member in 1998. His work has very little secondary market presence, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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